Have you ever heard of a Blue Zone?
I hadn't either, until I came across a special edition of National Geographic Magazine with the headline, "Blue Zones: The Science of Living Longer." Within minutes I had a glimpse into areas around the world where research has proven that people live the longest, healthiest lives. The idea is that in these regions, people don't have to think about being healthier because their communities are built to ensure that they already are.
Apparently, a good BlueZone has an interconnected web of factors, including what is eaten, the strength of their social networks, the consistency of their daily rituals, the relationship to their physical environments, and a sense of purpose about what they do. But, of course, the food they eat is most important.
In Ikaria, Greece, where many eat directly from their organic, chemical-free gardens and it is not uncommon for their bread to be fermented from the same starter culture that a person's great-great-grandmother used, people have one of the world's lowest rates of dementia.
Okinawa, Japan -- where diets are high in sweet potatoes and moais, groups of women who commit themselves to supporting each other for life, are prolific -- has become home to the world's longest-lived women.
In Sardinia, Italy, where most people consume only 3 servings of meat per month, and older people don't retire so much as they shift into jobs that allow them to keep contributing to the village, there are more centenarian men than anywhere else in the world.
In Loma Lind, California, where the high population of Seventh-Day Adventists live by a biblically-inspired plant-based diet that emphasizes nuts, whole grains, beans and soy products, and where smoking is prohibited, residents are living 10 more healthy years than the average American.
Due to a lifestyle ingrained with regular, low-intensity physical activity and a combination of dietary staples known as the "three sisters" -- beans, corn and squash -- residents of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica have the world's lowest rates of middle-age mortality and the second highest concentration of male centenarians.
So what's the secret?
Researchers say that residents of Blue Zones all have a common thread of nine socially-ingrained healthy lifestyle habits that extend their lives and keep them healthy:
1. They are constantly nudged toward movement by the environment that surrounds them. This means walking is often a main mode of transport.
2. People are engaged in a sense of purpose that goes beyond work. They all have a good, non-worked related answer to "what wakes you up in the morning?"
3. "Downshift. Long-lived people have developed routines to shed stress: Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians enjoy a happy hour."
4. People abide by the 80% rule -- that's reminding themselves to stop eating when they are 80% full. According to National Geographic, "If Americans adopted this rule, they could lose an average of 17 pounds in the first year."
5. Diets are plant based, with fava and black beans, soy and lentils as the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat is a relatively small part of their diets.
6. "Wine @ 5." People in all the Blue Zones (even some of the Adventists), drink 1-2 glasses with friends and food.
7. Supportive social circles. See more about moais -- groups of five friends who are committed to each other for life -- here.
8. Contributing to your community -- whether it be with faith-based activities or otherwise.
9. Putting family first. Investing time and love into children, caring for elders and having a healthy life partnership are all central to the lives of centenarians in Blue Zones.
But most American communities aren't set up to make the healthy option the inevitable one. So what can I do?
According to the special edition of National Geographic, we can all weave Blue Zone principles into the fabrics of our lives by taking small steps to effect change and extend your life. Here are a few:
Make growing, preparing, serving and eating a sacred practice; abide by the adage of eating "breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper," and expand your definitions of breakfast foods; cook at home as a way of taking control over the ingredients you put in your body; pause before eating as a reminder of gratitude and to remind yourself not to overindulge; engage in short fasts regularly through the year; eat with friends and family instead of while driving, watching TV or standing up at work; indulge in your favorites every now and then but always come back to what is best for you.
Create opportunities for movement in your life, like planting and maintaining a garden; keep sneakers in the car so you can go directly to a trail to walk or bike after work; keep the TV upstairs so you have to walk to get to it each day, and maybe even get rid of the remote so you'll have to get up and move every time you want to change the channel,
Create your own moais. "One of the most dependable, universal means to greater health and happiness is simply to socialize more."
Whether it be faith-based or otherwise, find ways to contribute to your community. It's really not as hard as you think!
So this is my challenge to you: take steps to start making your home a Blue Zone! Not only is it worth it to have a longer life and a more pleasant experience in your body, it is 100% doable. What steps will you take this week? Today? Right now?