What began as a National Geographic expedition, led by Dan Buettner to uncover the secrets to longevity, evolved into the discovery of the five places around the globe where people consistently live to over 100 years old, dubbed the Blue Zones: Okinawa in Japan; Sardinia; Nicoya in Costa Rica; Ikaria in Greece; and Loma Linda in California.
While we have no choice over where we are born, the good news is that we can learn from the habits of the world’s oldest people: there are things you can do today to halt, or even reverse, the ageing process.
The world’s longest-living inhabitants don’t have a gym membership or run marathons. Instead, they live in environments that constantly encourage them to move without thinking about it. “The wonderful thing about these communities is that movement is a way of life for them,” Kathryn Danzey, wellness expert and founder of Rejuvenated, tells us. “Think of the centurion riding his bicycle, or the great grandma carrying her shopping up a hill – it’s all a part of their daily life. The secret is to choose a physical activity you enjoy. It isn’t about doing a marathon and pushing yourself to your physical limits, just getting a little out of breath every now and then.”
Try This: Making the smallest of changes will make a difference, adds Dr Manpreet Bains, GP and head of clinical operations at Thriva. “Walk to the station instead of driving or getting the bus, walk to the shops, and spend more time in your garden and outdoors. These things may sound simple, but they can make a huge difference to your overall health.” This type of movement will boost your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis, i.e., the calories expended out of exercise), which studies show can have a huge impact on your metabolism over time.
Eat Mostly Plants
Across all five Blue Zones, the focus is on a plant-rich, unprocessed diet, with very little meat and dairy, adds Kathryn. “This includes eating fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts and grains in abundance, all of which are associated with a lower risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.” Nicoya, for example, an 80-mile peninsula south of the Nicaraguan border in Costa Rica, boasts the lowest middle-aged mortality rate worldwide. It's well documented that beans, corn and squash are the secret behind this region’s longevity. Meanwhile, in Ikaria, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, locals eat a Mediterranean diet packed with plants, including plenty of potatoes, beans and horta, a nutrient-rich wild green. Their diet is also rich in fish, a good source of omega-3 fats, which has been linked to slower brain decline in old age and a reduced risk of heart disease.
Try This: “One of the simplest ways to improve your diet is to eat more beans and legumes – think black beans, soybeans, lentils, pearl barley and other pulses,” Kathryn advises. “Full of fibre, vitamins and minerals, they will keep your heart in good shape, reduce cholesterol levels and help maintain healthy blood sugar to prevent diabetes.”
Follow The 80% Rule
As well as a balanced, plant-dominant diet, these communities also practise portion control. In Okinawa, Japan, eating until you’re no longer hungry, rather than until you’re full, is common among older residents. “Blue Zone populations generally eat small portions, and they eat enough to live rather than living to eat,” adds Kathryn. “By doing this, they naturally extend their lifespan and health. Food is savoured and taken leisurely with friends and family, giving it time to digest.”
Try This: You’ve heard it before but take time with your food. The hormones that make you feel full only reach their maximum blood levels 20 minutes after you eat, so it takes a while for your brain to realise you’ve had enough. Research also shows the biggest meal in Blue Zone areas happens in the late afternoon or early evening. A post-lunch espresso should also be on the cards, says Kathryn. “A small shot of coffee after a meal helps the body digest food, balance blood sugar and promote a healthy metabolism. But remember someone in the Blue Zones will always opt for an espresso rather than a milky latte.”
Have A Glass Of Wine
Wine – in moderation – features in the Blue Zone diet. Sardinians, in particular, drink Cannonau wine, which boasts one of the highest levels of antioxidants of any alcohol in the world and contains three times more polyphenols (micronutrients that prevent degenerative disease) than other red wines. Red wine has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, certain cancers and slow the progression of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s.
Try This: “Having a drink with close friends could be the secret to a longer life,” says Kathryn. “In the Western world we often drink wine without food, whereas the real benefits are gained by enjoying a glass of organic wine with friends and family.”
STOCKSY/ROB & JULIA CAMPBELL
Create Your Community
“Strengthening your social ties with family, friends and a religious community are all part of the Blue Zone ethos,” Kathryn adds. “Having strong and diverse networks gives us a sense of belonging and sharing, which is an important factor in longevity. In fact, studies show that creating these strong bonds can help you live an estimated seven to 17 years longer.” Dan Buettner, the New York Times bestselling author and explorer who discovered the Blue Zones (and coined the term), adds that putting effort into creating a group of four or five people who nourish you is the most powerful thing you can do to add years to your life. “In every Blue Zone, community, neighbours and family are a priority,” adds Dr Federica Amati PhD, chief nutrition scientist for Indi Supplements. “There’s no one right way to be social, but it’s vital to remember we are social creatures and community is crucial for good health.”
Try This: It’s never too late to create new ties, says Kathryn. “Volunteer in your community or sign up for a new class. Studying a new craft or subject also has many benefits, including boosting cognitive health. Seek out people with similar interest and beliefs to build new friendships.”
Inhabitants of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica live by the ‘plan de vida’ or ‘reason to live’. Residents of Okinawa believe in ‘ikigai’, which translates roughly as ‘reason for being’. “What we can take away from the Blue Zones is that people have a clear sense of purpose,” Manpreet tell us. “A positive, motivating reason behind why you wake up in the morning and then setting a routine for the day. In fact, evidence shows having routine built into your lifestyle is a way to de-stress and create a sense of purpose. Increased stress leads to chronic inflammation, which can lead to disease. Plus, we know that 80% of chronic illnesses are preventable through the right lifestyle measures.”
Try This: Blue Zone research suggests knowing your sense of purpose could add seven years to your life expectancy. Try making three lists: your values, things you like to do, and things you are good at. The cross section of these lists is your purpose. “Discovering your purpose in life may seem a little philosophical, but studies have shown doing so can bring fulfilment and happiness, which in turn can boost life expectancy,” says Kathryn.
DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.