The United States is facing a health crisis of unprecedented proportions: Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Diabetes and heart disease rates are on the rise. For the first time in living history, the life expectancy of America’s children is less than that of their parents.
In other parts of the world, however, people are living longer, healthier lives. In certain areas known as Blue Zones, people tend to live well into their 90s and beyond while remaining mentally and physically vibrant. It’s no coincidence that people in these regions share several lifestyle traits.
The Blue Zones
- Sardinia, Italy: a mountain village where researchers encountered a 102-year-old man who hikes at least 6 miles a day.
- Okinawa, Japan: home to some of the world’s longest-lived people.
- Loma Linda, California: where a group of Seventh Day Adventists commonly live to 100 years old and enjoy more healthy years of life than the rest of the United States.
- Icaria, Greece: a tiny island with 20 percent lower rates of cancer, 50 percent lower rates of heart disease, and almost no dementia.
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica: where residents enjoy lower levels of obesity and longer lives than the rest of Costa Rica.
The key to living longer, fuller lives, says Buettner, is to create an environment of health. Science has determined that less than 25% of a person’s lifespan is determined by genes. The rest can be influenced by lifestyle factors.Healthy Lifestyle Habits
Buettner and his team of researchers have identified nine lifestyle factors common among Blue Zone inhabitants, all of which are associated with an extra 3-6 years of quality life. The secret to vitality and longevity is incorporating these habits into your daily life. Adopting all nine of these habits — known as the Power9 — is not necessary to experience the benefits of increased health and longevity; according to Buettner, practicing just six of the Power9 will deliver 90% of the benefits. His book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, provides practical guidelines for setting up your home, your social life, and your work place to help add more quality years to your life.
Surprisingly, only one of the Power9 deals with exercise, and a full third involve social factors. In fact, says Buettner, the single most important thing you can do is extend your life is to build your own “Right Tribe.” The world’s longest-lived people were either born into or choose to associate with the right people — those who provide emotional support and the motivation to engage in healthy activities. Research shows that if you surround yourself with people who are active and eat healthy foods, you are more likely to adopt these habits yourself.
The Power91. Move naturally
Find ways to move mindlessly and adopt a lifestyle that makes moving unavoidable. In many Blue Zones, walking is the main mode of transportation. People also engage in some sort of moderate daily activity such as gardening, walking, or playing with their children. Buettner believes that many Americans exercise too hard; our bodies were not made to withstand years of heavy pounding and high-intensity physical activity. Regular, low-intensity activity — doing something light every day — may be more beneficial. Focus on activities you enjoy — even something as seemingly simple as a daily walk can provide health benefits.2. Know your purpose in life
Having a meaningful reason to get out of bed in the morning can help reduce stress and ward off disease. Studies show that people who retire early often see a decline in their health and even experience higher mortality rates than those who continue to work. If you enjoy your job, keep working as long as possible. Volunteer work and community service can also help provide a sense of purpose.3. Downshift
People in Blue Zones typically have less stress in their lives. Look for ways to simplify your life: slow down, get plenty of rest, and take vacations. Try to punctuate your day with periods of calm, whether that means meditating, taking a relaxing bath, or carving out some time for yourself to engage in a hobby.4. Follow the 80% Rule
As Americans, we’re used to eating until we’re full, but allowing yourself to feel hunger can actually be beneficial. A study involving mice revealed that the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin may help fight stress and depression. People in Blue Zones typically stop eating when they are 80% full. Buettner’s book and the Blue Zone web site provide advice on adopting healthier eating habits.5. Eat a plant-based diet
People in Blue Zones don’t diet; they eat wisely. Blue Zone diets consist of large amounts of locally grown vegetables and less protein than the average American diet. Limit processed foods, meats, fats, and sweets as much as possible. Also drink plenty of fresh water and herbal teas. In Icaria, residents drink high levels of herbal teas that act as diuretics, lower blood pressure, and prevent heart disease.6. Drink red wine
Red wine is high in powerful antioxidants that can help fight cancer, reduce inflammation, and lower cholesterol. In Sardinia, researchers found a red wine with the world’s highest-known levels of antioxidants. Drink red wine consistently and in moderation — a glass or two a day is recommended.7. Belong to a healthy social network
Having a strong and supportive social system is key to reducing stress and living a healthy life. There is a biological link between social connection and how well our bodies function. Fifteen years ago, the average American had three good friends; that number is now down to two. Our increasingly wired society and busy lifestyles have made us more isolated, which can shave years off our lives. Make an effort to spend time with friends and nurture a face-to-face network instead of just connecting with people online. Proactively build friendships with people who practice healthy habits. Participating in social exercise groups or volunteering are great ways to meet healthy, like-minded individuals.8. Have a belief system
Having some sort of faith system or spiritual practice has been shown to have health benefits. Participating in a belief system doesn’t have to mean organized religion: Okinawans believe in ancestral worship; yoga and meditation are also forms of non-religious spiritual practices. “People who feel their life is part of a larger plan and are guided by their spiritual values have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, a lower risk of heart attack and cancer, and heal faster and live longer,” says Harold G. Koenig, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center.9. Put your family first
People in Blue Zones make family a priority and nurture supportive relationships with their loved ones. Studies have shown that the average working American parent spends just 19 minutes a day engaged in childcare. As you work on simplifying your routine, look for new, beneficial activities you can do with your children and extended family members. Complete a craft project together, get the family together for a bike ride, or involve the children in making dinner and choosing healthy foods for the family.
For more information, visit the Blue Zones web site, which features a Vitality Compass for gauging your current state of health and life expectancy.