Until a few days ago, I had never heard the phrase 'blue zone'. Have I been living under the proverbial cabbage patch leaf? Perhaps; but now that I have heard and explored what it means, it comes to mind that we have the tools to turn each and every community into a 'blue zone'. And if not the community, certainly our own domain -- our homes.
Blue zones are places in the world where people live longer and healthier -- to 90 or even 100 years of age -- without medication or disability. Journalist Dan Buettner, in a partnership with National Geographic spent five years searching for reasons five areas of the world -- Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda California; Nicoya Peninsula Costa Rica, and an isolated Greek island, Ikaria -- are inspiring people to live longer, healthier, happier lives. His findings? LIFESTYLE!!! For whatever reason, the vast majority of these communities followed a simple prescription. They maintained a healthy diet, daily exercise, and a low stress lifestyle which incorporates family, purpose, religion, and meaning.
A healthy diet is one that is loaded with vegetables, fruits, fish, and nuts and low on meat, sugar, fat, and processed foods. All four cultures share similarities regarding their eating habits. Some stop eating before they're full while others make dinner the lightest meal of the day. There is also a strong belief in getting plenty of sunshine and taking in vitamin D.
Buettner has found that those who live long and healthy in the blue zones unanimously live low stress, happy lives enriched with strong family ties, a sense of purpose, a healthy dose of spirituality, and plenty of sleep. Unlike the straightforwardness of eating healthy and exercising, this third pillar of a healthy lifestyle is hard to precisely define. Stress is especially proven to have serious harmful effects on the body . The long-term effects of a life constantly full of stress, anger, and resentment are dramatic, increasing blood pressure, and generally increasing the onset and severity of heart disease and several other major diseases.
Buddhist Temple, Richmond, BC
Living long and healthy is not mysterious. It is a choice. If you aren’t living the lifestyle, then it is never too late to start. To live long and healthy requires a constant, daily lifestyle of positive enrichment for the body and mind. Find ways to make healthy food taste good. Find ways to make exercise a meaningful part of your daily routine rather than a burdensome chore. Surround yourself with others that share your interest in living a full life that is low in stress, happy, and meaningful. Get plenty of sleep.
A team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists searched for evidence-based common denominators among the 5 Blue Zones and found nine:
1. Move Naturally : live in environments that constantly nudge you into moving without thinking about it. Grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
2. Purpose: Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
3. Down Shift: Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. Develop a routine to shed that stress. Take a few moments each day to remember your ancestors. Pray. Take a nap. Have a happy hour.
4. 80% Rule : Stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it.
5. Plant Slant: Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of deck or cards.
6. Wine @ 5: People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all weekend and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
7. Belong: Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.
8. Loved Ones First: Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).
9. Right Tribe : The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors. Research shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious.
Enter 'Blue Zone Communities'. The Blue Zones Project initiative challenges communities to become a Blue Zones Community™ , a systems approach that allows citizens, schools, employers, restaurants, grocery stores and community leaders to work together on policies and programs that will make the most impact and move the community towards optimal health and well-being. Blue Zone communities don’t rely on individual behavior change but, rather, focus on making healthy choices the easy choice. Rather than nagging residents to walk more, walking is made easier and more desirable. By making wholesome foods more prevalent and accessible and less expensive than junk foods, more people begin to eat healthier naturally.
Take Albert Lea, for example. Starting in 2009, Albert Lea, a statistically average American city located about 90 miles south of Minneapolis, underwent an extraordinary transformation. For three years, this city of 18,000 residents participated in the Blue Zones Vitality Project sponsored by AARP and the United Health Foundation, making it ground zero for the application of longevity research in America! Amid a pep-rally-like atmosphere in a high-school auditorium, the community kicked off the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project. The mission of the Vitality Project was to add healthy years to an entire town by weaving the Blue Zones principles into every aspect of the community—restaurants, businesses, schools, homes, and everyday lives. Two-thirds of locally owned restaurants added life-extending foods to their menus; 35 businesses pledged to make their workplaces healthier by offering more nutritious catering menus and vending machine choices, and substituting fruit for doughnuts. Residents participated in 15 Vitality Project initiatives, from walking groups—including "walking school buses," where parents and grandparents stroll with children to school—to healthy cooking classes.
Many communities embrace most aspects of this lifestyle, Earlier this year, I visited a community in Michoacan, Mexico, where I met a vital, enthusiastically active and entertaining 90-year-old woman named Maria. Maria, I suspect, has never heard about Blue Zone Communities but, all the same, she lives the lifestyle. She lives in a multi-generational home with her nephew and great nephew. She eats locally grown food, much of which she grows in her own garden or picks in the hills behind her village. Maria actively participates in the well-being of her family; she weaves and embroiders robosos (shawl) that she is modelling in this photograph, and sells them on city streets. But what is most obvious about Maria is her friendly demeanor and easy laughter.
For many of us, there are lessons our parents and grandparents knew, that have been forgotten. The beauty of Blue Zone Communities is, while tools are provided to support transforming the entire community, the program lends itself to a bottom up approach. Start challenging yourself and your family: Here's a checklist to help you to introduce and monitor healthy lifestyle changes such as eating more fruits and veggies, eating breakfast; limiting screen time (TV AND computer); limiting sugar http://www.bluezones.com/challenge/students/