By Isabella Ramirez
BS, Master’s in Nutrition Student at Tufts University
We all aspire to live a long, healthy, and fulfilled life. In certain areas of the world, there are individuals with such a high quality of life, that their life expectancy is maximized to reach 100 years old.
The term “Blue Zones” was created by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Explorer and best-selling author, and his team of expert scientists, anthropologists, and demographers, who began to study different regions of the world where humans are known to live the longest. Dan and his team identified five places across the globe which they circled with a blue pen on a map– earning the name Blue Zones.
“In America, for the first time in a century, life expectancy is dropping,” said Dan Buettner in his new docuseries Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. “The goal is not to try to prevent death. It is learning how to live.” Carry that sentiment as you read.
So, where are the Blue Zones?
Loma Linda, California
Nicoya, Costa Rica
What can we learn from the Blue Zones?
Luckily, you do not have to live in a Blue Zone to apply the lifestyle habits that are practiced there. These routines and perspectives can be a simple and non-costly way to enrich your perspective on health, purpose, and longevity. The team’s research has shown that all five of the Blue Zones share similar lifestyle principles:
Movement in the Blue Zones is not exclusive to having a gym membership or doing pilates. Many of these individuals incorporate daily exercise without even realizing it. This can include walking, gardening, dancing, hiking mountains, and wood chopping. Blue zone elders tend to do more manual labor such as sewing or kneading bread which can support cognitive and muscle health.
Finding your “why” can add purpose to your life. In Okinawa, the term “ikigai” means “reason for being.” The Japanese believe this is a big part of their longevity and what keeps them going everyday. According to several studies, a higher sense of purpose is associated with a reduced risk of early death.
Living a slow-paced lifestyle also makes unwinding an important part of each day. Even though it is typical for individuals in the blue zones to continue working past their retirement age, finding the balance between work and play is important. Whether it is taking the time to socialize, dance, or bond with a community, prioritizing moments that de-stress contributes to a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, depression, and anxiety according to the Mayo Clinic.
The quality and quantity of what you eat is important for health and longevity. Temporary diets are not the focus in the Blue Zones; therefore nutrient-dense and filling foods become the choice for a sustainable dietary lifestyle habit. About 95% of these foods are plant-based options such as beans, whole grains, nuts, leafy greens, and protein-rich vegetable options such as tofu. Olive oil is also the most consumed type of oil within the Blue Zones, with the average person consuming about 6 tablespoons of olive oil every day in Ikaria, Greece. Reducing meat, dairy, sugar, and egg consumption is common, and focusing on a daily dose of beans, snacking on nuts, and eating recognizable whole foods is part of their daily dietary consumption.
People in the Blue Zones mostly eat foods that are in season and are minimally processed. It is also rare for these individuals to juice their fruits, take the fat out of yogurt, or remove the yellow yolk of an egg. Preparing food is done in the most natural way possible.
The amount of food consumed in the Blue Zones is said to be done with the 80% rule. These individuals do not eat until they are uncomfortably full. Listening to your body and honoring the cues of a full stomach is a strategy in the Blue Zones. The Okinawans have a saying that goes “Hara hachi bu” which reminds them to eat mindfully and stop when their stomachs are 80% full. Food is part of the social experience and in the Blue Zones, many use drinking and eating as a way to connect with their social circles.
Building community is important for everyone in the Blue Zones. Whether it is family, a partnership, or finding the people that fulfill your life, this may be the key to longevity. Elders are incredibly respected and always come first. In Sardinia, Italy, nursing homes don't exist. Instead, families take care of their elders and keep them close. Friendships are also formed across all ages with time spent together regularly, with support during all phases of life.
Want to know more about the Blue Zones' way of life?
In Dan Buettner's recently released four-part Netflix docuseries, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, Buettner travels to each Blue Zone and interacts with the locals to learn what it takes to live to 100 years. Personal experiences, teachings, and ways of living across all five Blue Zones are shared.
If you are a college student who is interested in learning about and visiting a Blue Zone, there are opportunities to embark on this life-changing journey through study abroad programs. If your university does not offer a trip to a Blue Zone, you can search for one that does. Many programs accept students or non-students from different areas or you can encourage your university to add a Blue Zone course and trip by simply bringing the idea to a faculty member.
For University of Florida students, there is a course offered on the Blue Zones that specifically focuses on the Mediterranean way of living. A course on the food and culture of Ikaria, Greece is taught and at the end of the course, the class takes a trip to experience it first-hand. You can find more information at internationalcenter.ufl.edu.
The bottom line...
People across the five Blue Zones have the highest rates of centenarians and are known to be amongst the healthiest individuals in the world. Prioritizing social gatherings, consuming primarily whole plant-based foods, finding your purpose, and having a community are crucial components to living a long and fulfilling life.
The Blue Zones have a lot to teach us but don’t just take my word for it, watch the documentary, purchase a recipe book, or visit a Blue Zone for yourself to witness and adopt the secrets behind how to live longer and happier.
Ya mas! (To our health in Greek)