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6 Healthy Habits Straight from the Blue Zones

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May 17, 2024
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On the surface of things, it might not look like people who live in the six Blue Zones (Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; and Nicoya, Costa Rica) have much in common. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that people living in these locations bear some striking similarities in lifestyle and healthy habits.

That’s the concept behind researcher Dan Buettner’s popular book The Blue Zones, which highlights the fact that people in these tight-knit communities have some of the highest concentrations of centenarians. In fact, according to Buettner’s research, people in the Blue Zones reach age 100 at 10 times greater rates than those in the United States.

So what’s their secret? A combination of communal living, natural movement, stress management, and healthy dietary patterns appears to increase the chances of reaching that sought-after triple-digit birthday. Here’s a look at how to add a little Blue Zone energy to your own life — moving to Greece or Italy is optional.

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1. Incorporate movement throughout the day

The physical environments of the Blue Zones are inherently conducive to movement. In Sardinia, for example, local shepherds walk their herds an average of five miles per day up and down the island’s mountainous landscape. Other Blue Zone cultures maintain traditional ways of doing everyday tasks like housework and gardening, which causes them to exert more physical effort to get them done. Not surprisingly, this extra activity leads to perks like better cardiovascular health and lower rates of cancer.

While most of us can’t suddenly become Sardinian shepherds, we can curate our routines to include more natural movement.

For example:

  • Take an after-dinner walk each evening
  • Bike to work or run nearby errands
  • Start a backyard garden
  • Walk during phone calls and meetings when possible
  • Stretch or do simple exercises like squats during natural waiting times, like while the coffee is brewing

2. Get involved in your community

Chronic loneliness can be harmful to our health, hurting our sleep, raising the risk of heart disease, weakening our immune systems, and more. So it’s no wonder that one of the habits inherent in the Blue Zones is fostering a sense of belonging. Blue Zone residents are active in their communities, whether through volunteering, religious membership, or being a part of a close-knit social circle, and this healthy habit seems to help add years to their lives. According to the blue zones “Power 9” — that is, nine signature habits — attending a faith-based service four times per month can add 4 to 14 years to life expectancy.

Related: 8 Ways to Destress So You Can Live A Longer Life

3. Eat a plant-forward diet

People living in the Blue Zones aren’t necessarily vegetarians, but they do tend to follow plant-forward diets. Their emphasis on plant-based foods is so pronounced that Buettner dubbed another one of the Power 9 the “plant slant.” Beans in particular are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets, according to the Power 9.

“Beans are an important part of a healthy diet, as they combine protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and potent antioxidants, providing a perfect combination of nutrients that not only provide satiety but are protective against chronic disease,” says dietitian Elena Paravantes-Hargitt, author of The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Beginners.

To get the most benefits from beans, Paravantes-Hargitt recommends consuming them as the centerpiece of meals. “Ideally, you want to be eating beans as a main course two to three times a week,” she says. Her go-to recipes include thick bean stews and beans sautéed with olive oil, onion, and tomato paste.

Related: 11 Super Satisfying Low-Carb Vegetarian Recipes

4. Drink alcohol in moderation

In the Blue Zones, people typically consume one to two drinks per day in a social setting or with food. Often a glass of wine is the signal of the end of the workday and a cue to relax.

Sound like a sweet way to un-wine-d at the end of the day? Consider a regular 5 p.m. happy hour with your co-workers, spouse, or friends. Just keep in mind that an “official” glass of wine is just 5 ounces, not the overly generous pour you might get at the bar.

Of course, alcohol doesn’t work for everyone. You don’t have to sip if it does more harm than good for you. Go to that happy hour, and enjoy a mocktail while you socialize.

5. Share meals with family and friends

In the Blue Zones, sitting down to meals with family and friends is a given, and may be an important piece of the longevity puzzle.

“We know from studies that there are multiple benefits of families that eat together, particularly for children,” says Paravantes-Hargitt. “For adults, eating with friends and/or family can maintain mental health and provide a feeling of connection, as well as decrease loneliness and isolation. It also helps communication skills.”

Sitting down for leisurely communal meals might be a tall order in a fast-paced 21st-century life. But even small shifts toward meal sharing are a step in the right direction.

“If you’re at work or school, set aside time for lunch and meet up with co-workers for a quick bite,” Paravantes-Hargitt says. “At home, lunch can be tricky, but how about making a plan to have a family dinner on weekends and/or a Sunday breakfast every week?”

For those that don’t have family close by, she suggests joining a cooking club, where you can cook and dine with like-minded people.

Related: 9 Longevity-Promoting Recipes from Italy’s Blue Zone.

6. Don’t eat past the point of fullness

Ever heard of hara hachi bu? It’s the Confucian mantra spoken before meals on the island of Okinawa as a reminder to eat only to the point of about 80% fullness. The idea goes that preventing yourself from overeating not only precludes weight gain, but also keeps you more mindful at mealtimes.

“This practice not only has obvious physical benefits of maintaining a healthy weight, but it also creates and nurtures a healthy relationship with food, since [people in Blue Zones] trust and listen to their hunger to guide them, instead of being worried about calories, fats, etc.,” Paravantes-Hargitt explains.

Read next: 7 Blue Zone Foods That Help Increase Longevity

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