“You may be missing out on ten good years.” –Dan Buettner The Blue Zone
I am immediately skeptical of claims like this, unless they come from scientists who are studying how humans have lived and evolved for thousands of years. This is one of those books that wraps up age-old and forgotten knowledge about health and wellness into one fascinating and actionable read.
Dan Buettner has a pretty interesting job. He’s spent years visiting remote areas of the world; areas that seem to have a disproportionate number of centenarians, to figure out what makes these people live so long. He’s researched and written a cover article for National Geographic on longevity and elaborates on that article in his book called, The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.
What I love about this book is that Buettner’s team employs a wide range of scientists from gerontologists to psychologists to take a focused look at what has helped some extraordinary people live a long, long time. Then, they boil their findings down to nine key areas, with several suggestions for how to turn your life and home into your own, personal “Blue Zone”, the term used to denote small pockets of the world where a large percentage of the population lives a very long time. We’re not talking about people wasting away bedridden in a nursing home, these are people who are mobile, happy, and living at home well into their hundreds.
Spoiler alert: Americans are doing so very many things wrong. (No surprise there!)
Where Are the Blue Zones?
The four Blue Zones that Buettner dives into are Sardinia (the mountainous Barbagia region), Okinawa, Japan, a 7th Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California, and the Nicoya region in Costa Rica. In these four places, centenarians have spent their lives working hard, eating fresh, local, whole foods, resting with friends, and devoting their lives to their families and God. In fact, one key finding of this study is that if you’d like to live a long time, you’ve got to have a purpose (ikigai, plan de vida, or simply reason to get up in the morning).
The people living beyond 100 are, almost as a rule, extraordinarily likeable people who spend their days with their friends and families. They’ve seen everything and seem to let the worries of the world roll off their shoulders. They are, in short, one in a million – or are they? In one village in Sardinia 91 in 17,865 people live to 100 compared to 17.3 in 100,000 in the United States. Clearly these people are doing something right and we can too.
Steps to Create Your Own Blue Zone
I can’t possibly share all of the interesting anecdotes or fascinating cultural stories that I found to be so delightful about this book, but I can share the conclusions. Just why are these people living so long? Buettner and his team boil the answer down to nine reasons.
Blue Zoners spent their entire lives doing a lot of physical labor, which gave them daily, moderate exercise. The Sardinians walked 5 or 6 miles a day as they tended herds of sheep. Most centenarians in all four zones gardened. All got the equivalent of 30-60 minutes per day of aerobic, balancing, and strength-training exercise. Exercise and movement is key to a long and useful life.
Eat only until you’re 80% full
In Okinawa the elders mutter a phrase before every meal: “Hara hachi bu”, which reminds them to stop eating when they’re 80% full, reducing the amount of calories they intake. Over time could mean the difference between maintaining a healthy weight and gaining weight. Blue Zoners really concentrate on their food. They sit down, they eat it with family, and they eat on smaller dishes (which reduces the amount you eat too).
Avoid meat and processed foods
Science tends to agree with the centenarians, the foods we should be eating are vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruit and nuts. Most of the Blue Zoners eat at least two vegetables with every meal. They eat nuts and fresh produce from their gardens. Hardly anyone that’s lived to 100 eats any processed foods: no McDonald’s, no sodas, nothing. At most, they eat meat once a week, but many are vegetarians.
Drink red wine
Finally, something that seems easy. Drinking 1-2 small servings of alcoholic beverages a day brings in plenty of antioxidants, which is likely a key factor in longevity. Holding a happy hour with 1-2 drinks, nuts, and good company offers many of the benefits essential to a long life.
Have a purpose
Scientists and families have seen it again and again. Once someone loses his or her life purpose (a family member they care for, a job — whatever gets them up in the morning) death quickly follows. For many centenarians, their family is their purpose and they still take an active role in providing for them, even if that means buying and making the same Costa Rican soup every Sunday. That purpose keeps us going.
All of the people studied had a way of letting the worries of the world roll off their shoulders. They were rarely stressed out. The book recommends we limit electronic equipment exposure (so many ads and news blurbs only makes us more stressed out), arrive early, and meditate. I can personally vouch for meditation. I’ve starting doing it just two minutes a day (which is really hard at first) and it really does center you and bring you back into the “now”. Leo Babuta from Zen Habits has great instructions to help you get started with meditation.
Most of the centenarians have unshakable faith, though they all practice different religions. Faith helps us remove stress in that we know someone is watching over us, keeping us safe. Most religions also give us a ready-made community and weekly time to meditate or just sit still.
This is a tough one for me because, though I was raised a Lutheran, shortly after college I went through a period of 3-4 years in which I did a lot of soul searching and religious research. I no longer believe in a higher power, but people like me can still find solace in other ways. I respect and revere nature (as well as adore spending time outside, particularly hiking). I’ve also found the Unitarian Universalist community to be most welcoming as their doctrine invites you to think hard about what you really believe, then believe it, and they will support you. There are a lot of great atheists that are Unitarian Universalists, reaping some of the benefits of organized religion for a longer life.
The purpose driving many of our centenarians was providing for their families. Most live with or near their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and spend a lot of time with their families. Even if you live only with your immediate family, there are a lot of things you can do to put the focus back on family. Eat together, live in a smaller home so you physically must spend more time together, establish rituals, create a family “shrine” with photos and memorabilia, and simply spend more time together.
Find others with Blue Zone values
Look through your inner circle. Who embodies these values more than others? Spend more time with the people who you love and who reinforce your good behaviors. Be likeable (none of the centenarians are grumpy people). Spend at least 30 minutes a day with your Blue Zone inner circle.
For each of the steps above, the Blue Zone gives more advice for how to achieve each goal. They suggest trying 1-3 new goals at a time for a period of 5-12 weeks (the time it takes to form a new habit). I’m currently reducing the amount of meat I eat everyday, starting with meat-free work lunches. I’ve found it is incredibly easy to find and take vegetarian options to the office AND I don’t have to inconvenience any of my family members who aren’t ready to become vegetarians yet.
This was a fantastic book, especially if you’re looking for concrete ways to gain more, healthy time on Earth. And who isn’t?