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The key to Blue Zones and being ‘mindlessly healthy’

Author Dan Buettner has studied communities around the world that live longer, and age better. Here are his nine power tips.

columns Updated: Jan 27, 2018 22:24 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Walking instead of driving, cycling, climbing stairs instead of using elevators and doing physical work such as lifting adds to functional fitness, Buettner found.
Walking instead of driving, cycling, climbing stairs instead of using elevators and doing physical work such as lifting adds to functional fitness, Buettner found. (Pixabay)

Why do some people live longer and have healthier lives than others? His search for answers led best-selling author Dan Buettner to five spots around the world where most people remained active and didn’t develop degenerative diseases as they aged, with many living to 100 and more.

Buettner termed these regions of health and longevity ‘Blue Zones’, and they included the island of Ikaria in Greece; Okinawa island in Japan; the Barbagia region of Sardinia in Italy; the tiny town of Loma Linda in California; and the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica.

“These were the world’s happiest people, who lived statistically the longest,” says Buettner, who then decided to try and reverse-engineer longevity by finding out what made these people healthy and happy.

Though genes play a role, it’s a small one. In fact, a Danish study of 3,099 pairs of twins found the genetic influence on health to be only 25%, with non-familial factors — lifestyle and environment — playing bigger roles.

Buettner’s 17-year study of the people in the Blue Zones concluded that a healthy lifestyle without effort came from an enabling environment. Trying to actively seek longevity always fails, says Buettner, because most people “don’t stick with anything”. Changed behaviour has to be sustained, which is best done if it doesn’t require effort. “Longevity happens. People who live the longest don’t buy treadmasters or sign up for wellness programmes. They just have lifestyles that are naturally healthier,” he says.

The best-selling author has used his learnings to identify nine factors, which he calls the Power 9 Longevity Principles, which boost health and happiness when made a part of the day’s routine.

Buettner was at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos last week and spoke on how optimising civic infrastructure and local environments to support positive behaviours adds to life. Here, then, are his Power 9.

Keep moving. Walking instead of driving, cycling, climbing stairs instead of using elevators and doing physical work such as lifting adds to functional fitness. “[The people in the Blue Zones] don’t exercise the way we think of exercise but live in environments that force them to move every 20 minutes,” he says. Buettner practices what he preaches, holding three Guinness world records in long-distance cycling.

Have a sense of purpose. It gives you a reason to embrace life each day. “They have a vocabulary for purpose that adds up to seven years of extra life expectancy,” says Buettner.

De-stress. Stress-relieving rituals vary widely among Blue Zone inhabitants, but each group has adopted rituals that helped them to get rid of the chronic factors linked to chronic diseases. The largely Adventists community at Loma Linda turns to prayer, Ikarians nap, while Sardinians rely on restorative food and drink.

Eat less. Most people living in the Blue Zones don’t eat until they are full. Instead, they stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full and eat their smallest meal at the end of the day, usually in the early evening.

The veg edge. About 90% of the food in Blue Zones is low-processed plant material, with beans and legumes being the cornerstones of meals, followed by vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Meat is eaten in small amounts.

Wining and dining. Most healthy communities drink a couple of glasses of wine a day, at meals that are eaten along with friends and family.

Family ties. Having strong family bonds and spending time with partners, children, siblings and parents adds to lifespan, with Blue Zone inhabitants putting family ahead of work and hobbies.

Have faith. “Being part of a faith-based community adds four to 14 years to life expectancy,” says Buettner.

Social networks. Spending time with friends, neighbours and being involved in the community works wonders to de-stress and give people a sense of purpose. “The happiest people socially interact, face to face, six hours a day,” says Buettner.

In 2009, Buettner partnered with a wellness provider to create the Blue Zones Project, which works to create sustainable environments where communities move naturally, eat fresh and healthy foods, and connect socially. His work in his first project city of Albert Lea in Minnesota added 2.9 years to people’s lives and saw health claims drop by 49%.

Being “mindlessly healthy”, as he puts it, is the secret to health and happiness.