How to Enter the Blue Zone
So what exactly is a Blue Zone anyway?
Simply put, a Blue Zone is an area in the world where populations of people live to be 100 years or older.
That’s a really big 3-digit number.
In fact, if you live to 100, you exceed the average U.S. average life expectancy of 77.74 by almost 25 years!
But importantly, it’s not just that people who live in the Blue Zones live long.
They also live well.
As Dr. Dean Ornish rightly points out, these populations “often live better lives, with health, meaning, and love— dying young as old as possible.”
Think about that —dying YOUNG as OLD as possible.
Isn’t that what we all want?
To grow old but still enjoy a healthy, vibrant life each and every day?
So, let’s take a peek at the Blue Zones and discover their secret to living a long, healthy life.
The birth of the Blue Zones?
The Blue Zones refers to the five regions in the world where people live the longest.
The idea of the Blue Zones was initially conceived as the result of a demographic study conducted by Giannni Pess and Michael Poulain. Pess and Poulain stumbled upon Sardinia’s Nuoro province which boasts the highest concentration of men who live to hundred on the planet.
During their research, Pess and Poulain drew concentric blue circles on a map to mark the cluster of villages with the most centenarians, naming the area inside the circle the “Blue Zone”.
Intrigued by the concept, National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner took the idea of the Blue Zone and applied it to other regions with long-living residents in Japan, Costa Rica, California and Greece. He ultimately wrote a book on the topic called The Blue Zones:
Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.
Where are the Blue Zones?
In total there are 5 Blue Zone regions including:
- Sardinia, Italy. Sardinia has been nicknamed the ‘place where people live the longest in the world’. In fact from 1996 to 2016, a record-breaking 20 centenarians lived in one Sardinian village.
- Okinawa, Japan. Known as the ‘land of the immortals’, Okinawa has the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. Interestingly, Okinawans eat 3-4 times the vegetables compared to the average Americans.
- Loma Linda, California. Tucked away in California, this town is inhabited mainly by Seventh Day Adventists whose healthy habits translate into a life expectancy at least 9-11 years higher than that of normal Americans.
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. The middle-aged residents of the Nicoya Peninsula have a 4 times greater chance of reaching 90 than the average American.
- Icaria, Greece. This Greek island apparently well deserves its nickname, ‘the island where people forgot to die’. An April 2009 study revealed that Icaria had the highest percentage of 90-year-olds on the planet—nearly 1 out of 3 were in their 90s! Plus, they enjoy a healthy old age with almost zero dementia and a 50% lower rate of heart disease.
It’s Not About Quantity, It’s About Quality
What is most impressive about the Blue Zones is not the quantity of the years they live, but the quality.
They grow old well.
Overall they remain healthy, with significantly lower risk of heart attacks, strokes, cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s and dementia.
So the obvious question is why?
What differentiates the people in these Blue Zones?
What lifestyle habits do they have which contribute to their remarkable longevity?
According To Dan Bueller, the 9 lifestyle habits that link the Blue Zone inhabitants are:
- Eating a plant-based diet
- Engaging in moderate, regular physical activity
- Ensuring a moderate caloric intake
- Having a life purpose
- Maintaining low stress levels
- Drinking only moderate amounts of alcohol (specifically wine)
- Being spiritual
- Emphasizing family
- Being involved in the social life of a community
I’d like to focus on 1-3 which pertains to diet and exercise.
While all 9 factors play a role in longevity, nothing affects your longevity more than your physical health, i.e. what you eat and your overall level of physical activity.
Let’s first talk about diet…
Across all of the Blue Zones, the populations eat mostly a plant-based diet with a strong emphasis on homegrown or locally produced foods.
Specifically, the Blue Zone diet is made up of nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts and seeds, sweet potatoes, locally grown corn as well as whole grains.
I’d like to also emphasize that the Blue Zone inhabitants also eat a lot of legumes and beans. As we discussed in “The Brilliant Bean“, and “Eat Your Beans“ beans and legumes are often overlooked but they shouldn’t be as they are incredibly good for you and have been shown to increase longevity.
For example, in a recent study conducted in Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia, scientists saw a whopping 8% reduction in death risk for every 20-gram increase in daily legume intake!
Conversely, diets devoid of beans appear to decrease lifespan; a recent Taiwanese study suggests that a bean-free diet could be a significant mortality predictor in women.
In sum, the Blue Zone diet is both antioxidant and phytochemical-rich, helping to lower inflammation levels, a well-known contributor to many diseases. This most probably explains why Blue Zone inhabitants rarely suffer from ‘classic’ illnesses like cancer or heart disease that normally plague the elderly.
What might be as important as what they DO eat is what they DON’T eat. People living in the Blue Zones avoid eating meat as well as processed, packaged foods. Their diet is also bereft of sugar, pesticides and artificial ingredients.
Equally, they never overeat.
In the Japan Blue Zone, centenarians practice “Hara hachi bu” which teaches people to eat until they’re only 80% full.
Another really interesting observation about the Blue Zones pertains to exercise.
As we discussed in both our article “Connecting the Dots Between Eating and Exercise“ and “Cracking the Exercise Code“ the Blue Zone inhabitants are just naturally active. Physical movement is woven throughout each day whether it’s in the form of walking, (between 5-6 miles a day!), house chores, gardening or playing with pets and grandchildren.
As Dan Buettner explains in his book “the world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons, or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work. Every trip to work, to a friend’s house, or to church occasions a walk.”
In the Blue Zone, people don’t ‘go to the gym’.
They just move.
All the time.
And in a natural way.
The inhabitants of the Blue Zones can teach us many important lessons.
Stay tuned for our next article in this series.
And in the meantime, I’ll leave you with these parting, incredibly wise words from one 102 year-old female living in the Okinawa Blue Zone…
“Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to
people, and smile”
Kamada Nakasato (Dan Buettner)