As you probably know, I’m a big fan of creating a wellness lifestyle based on research and personal trial and error. Blue Zones are fascinating because the people in them all have diverse diets and habits as well as different environments, but seem to live longer and be happier.
Researchers have continued to study what Blue Zone communities have in common and have pinpointed a few simple things we can incorporate into our own lives for better health, longevity, and happiness.
What Are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones are communities where people live longer than the average. On top of that, these people don’t just live longer, they are relatively healthy up until the very end of their lives and have overall lower instances of disease than we do in America.
Research performed by Michel Poulain and Giani Pes sparked the beginning of Blue Zone research, but this book by Dan Buettner popularized the idea.
Buettner, Poulain, and Pes discovered five communities in total where people were not only living longer but had healthier and happier lives too.
The five Blue Zones are:
- The Italian island of Sardinia
- Okinawa, Japan
- Loma Linda, California
- Costa Rica’s isolated Nicoya Peninsula
- Ikaria, an isolated Greek island
The interesting part is these places are not close to each other and the people who live there don’t necessarily share common ethnicities or other backgrounds.
So what could the common factor be? The Blue Zone researchers have some ideas.
What Do Blue Zones Have in Common?
The Blue Zones have some basic things in common despite being quite culturally different:
- Life Purpose – People in Blue Zones wake up every day with purpose. Researchers found that knowing your purpose in life can be worth seven extra years!
- Eat Earlier in the Day – People in Blue Zones don’t eat large meals before bedtime. Instead, they eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon and don’t eat after.
- Strong Community – Almost all of the people in Blue Zones that have reached the age of 100 report being part of some faith-based community. The researchers found that attending four faith-based events in a month can lengthen longevity by 4 to 14 years.
- Good Relationships – Blue Zone people also put family first. They are more likely to keep aging relatives nearby or in the house. They also commit to a spouse or life partner which can add three years of longevity. Finally, they commit to spending quality time with their children.
- Natural Movement – Movement is important for overall health, but the people in these Blue Zones don’t go to the gym. Instead, they incorporate natural movement into their everyday lives. For example, they may garden or do other outdoor work without tools that make that work easier (like a gas-powered lawn mower). They also do their own housework.
- Relaxation – We know that stress is one contributing factor in chronic illness and is connected to healthy cortisol levels. When stress is chronic, it can mess with our cortisol and hormones. Researchers found that people in Blue Zones don’t have chronic stress. How do they accomplish this amazing state of zen? They have daily rituals to relax and release the stress of the day like happy hour, prayer, and time in community.
- Eat Lots of Plants (But Animal Protein Too) – People in Blue Zones enjoy meat but not the same way we do in America. They eat meat on average five times a month (yes, a month) and their portions are 3 to 4 ounces.
- Wine – People in Blue Zones (except for the Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California) drink 1-2 glasses of wine daily.
- Find Their “Tribe” – People in Blue Zones choose to be in (or happened to be in) communities of people who choose healthy lifestyles. Researchers found that poor lifestyle choices are contagious. Likewise, good lifestyle choices can be contagious too.
Looking at this list, the word “moderation” comes to mind. Blue Zone people seem to have a very balanced approach to life.
What Can We Learn From Blue Zones?
Studying Blue Zones can help us find ways to improve our own lives too. Here are some of the areas our family is working on adopting from Blue Zone research:
Reduce Stress Daily
No one likes to be stressed, but in today’s world it seems like the norm. Blue Zone residents seem to understand why stress reduction is so important and spend time every day reducing stress and improving relaxation.
Other ideas for daily stress reduction are:
- nature walks
- say no when you have too much on your plate
- do a technology detox
- do something that makes you laugh
- have a date night
- listen to music
There are a million other ways to reduce stress too. The point is to pick something (or a few things) and incorporate them into each and every day. And most importantly, don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself!
Eat Real Food (And Lots of Veggies!)
There is no one specific diet that all Blue Zoners share, but there are a few general principles they have in common. You probably guessed the general rule: eat lots of fruits and vegetables! In addition, people in Blue Zones tend to eat:
- a very wide variety of different foods (generally grown within 10 miles of their home)
- pastured-raised meat and eggs (but not a lot – four out of five Blue Zones eat meat but three of the four eat a much smaller amount of meat then we do in America)
- fish (especially smaller fish like cod and sardines rather than larger fish that are higher in mercury)
- a quality olive oil (a staple in each of these communities)
Fun Fact: Four of the five Blue Zone communities drink 1-2 glasses of wine daily. While I don’t think this suggests we should all drink daily (although the type of wine certainly makes a difference), it’s an interesting fact to note!
Build a Community
Loneliness can have serious health effects including increasing cortisol and inflammation which can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and dementia. It’s no surprise then that these communities with the largest population of centenarians consider community involvement and social connection incredibly important.
How do they accomplish this? Researchers have picked out the most important contributing factors:
- Blue Zone people are part of spiritual communities and they know their purpose in life.
- They take care of their family first. Blue Zone families live together in multi-generational homes.
- Parents spend a lot of time with their children.
In our modern society (and especially as busy moms) it’s easy to get lost in the mountains of laundry, diapers, dishes, paperwork, emails, and carpooling and not actually connect with anyone all day long. So what’s a modern mom to do?
That’s a question I’m sure we’re all trying to answer (let me know if you have found one!) but here are some simple ideas to get started:
- Set aside an hour or so a day and just have fun together as a family.
- Commit to a regular dinner together to connect and share with family or friends. Blue Zone communities always eat together!
- If dinnertime doesn’t work because of schedules, try a different mealtime or have a snack or tea together when everyone is home.
- Schedule a regular night out with friends and invest time in your social circle.
Create a Healthy Environment
People in Blue Zones don’t spend hours at the gym (or any time at all!). They don’t count calories and they don’t obsess about portion sizes. Movement is naturally built into their days with things like walking or gardening. They also enjoy moderate amounts of food and wine (but don’t use them to self-medicate).
To create a healthy environment consider making these changes:
- Don’t keep junk food in the house.
- Spend more time with health-minded people.
- Walk or bike to more places (or at least park the car at the back of the parking lot).
- Spend time with others who have life purpose.
- Make time for spirituality.
- Find healthier ways to relax than food or alcohol (many of the above suggestions will work!).
Reshaping Our Communities the Blue Zone Way
All of this research seems to tell us that having a healthy diet is not enough when stress is overwhelming or community connection is lacking.
I say let’s bring back dinner parties, neighborhood block parties, and genuine time off. Let’s turn off our phones, be present, and take time to just be with people we love. These Blue Zones show it can be done and passing on these stress-relieving habits to our children is so important.
For some practical ideas on how to do this in your community, check out the Blue Zones Project. You never know, your hometown could be the next Blue Zone!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you incorporated any of the Blue Zone principles into your life? What has been your experience?