Examining the world’s ‘Blue Zones’ reveals 9 tips for living healthy for 100 years

Stock image of Bosa town on Sardinia island, Italy, identified as one of the world's "Blue Zones" | Photo by Poike/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

FEATURE — Have you heard of the Blue Zones? Almost a decade ago, best-selling author Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic and the world’s best longevity researchers to identify pockets around the world where people lived measurably longer lives.

In these areas, known as “Blue Zones,” they discovered that people reached 100 years of age at rates 10 times greater than in the United States.

Areas which met the criteria to be considered a Blue Zone were found in Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Icaria, Greece.

After identifying these Blue Zones, researchers took teams of scientists to each location to identify lifestyle characteristics that might explain the increase in longevity. They found that all Blue Zone residents shared nine specific characteristics they call the “Power Nine.”

The Power Nine

Move naturally. Movement is a natural part of their day in the Blue Zones. Instead of having a set time to go to the gym, their lifestyle encompasses continual physical activity throughout the day.

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Those who work at a desk for most of the day can participate in something I call “exercise snacks.” Set a timer to go off each hour, at which time you take five minutes to walk and stretch before heading back to your desk.

Purpose. A sense of purpose is worth up to an extra seven years of life expectancy. Why do you wake up in the morning? Do you engage in meaningful work and find purpose in what you spend your time doing?

Down shift. Most Americans have it all wrong: More is not necessarily better. Don’t we all seem to be striving for bigger and better by doing more? Down shifting, or finding ways to rest, relax, and rejuvenate, actually increases productivity.

Stress leads to chronic inflammation and is linked to many diseases. Find a routine to shed stress, and set aside time each day or each week to do something that helps you reconnect with yourself.

80% rule. This means that you stop eating when your stomach is 80% full. In addition, these groups eat their largest meal midday and their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening. They don’t eat after their evening meal, either.

You may not need to follow this exact pattern, but I believe it speaks to the importance of fueling yourself well during the day.

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Plant slant. These groups have at least 75% of their plate coming from the ground. They eat high fiber meals that are rich in antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.

Meat is eaten on average only five times per month, and the serving size is between 3-4 ounces, roughly the size of your palm. Beans are the cornerstone of the centenarian diet; I encourage you to use them as your protein source at least once a day.

Wine at five. People in some of these Blue Zones drink alcohol moderately and regularly. They drink one to two glasses per day with friends and/or with food.

Belong. All but five of the 263 centenarians interviewed belonged to a faith-based community. Research shows attending faith-based services four times per month will add four to 14 years of life expectancy. Ultimately, feeling a part of something bigger than yourself can increase quality and length of years.

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Loved ones first. Blue Zones are known for their deep appreciation for family. They keep aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home, which lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home, too. They commit to a life partner, which can add up to three years of life expectancy, and they invest in their children with time and love. Enough said.

Right tribe. There is a quote that says, “You are the average of the five people you associate with most.” These Blue Zones take this saying to heart. They choose – or are born into – social circles that support healthy behaviors.

I appreciate the data from the Blue Zones. It shows that each of us can create our own blue zone and that health and wellness is multifactorial. The information gathered from these areas encourages a holistic approach to life and has very little to do with fixating on numbers, killing yourself at the gym or giving up carbs.

Along with healthy eating and staying active, pleasure, rest and relaxation (and don’t confuse that with numbing feelings or “zoning out”) are important habits to cultivate if you seek health.

For more information about Blue Zones, click here.

Written by EMILY FONNESBECK for St. George Health and Wellness Magazine. Emily is a registered dietitian who owns her own private practice in Hyde Park, Utah, working with both local and virtual clients. She specializes in treating eating disorders, disordered eating and body image concerns. She is also the co-founder of Eat Confident Co., which offers group coaching programs for women struggling with disordered eating, and she co-hosts the Eat with Confidence podcast.

This article was first published in the March/April 2021 issue of St. George Health and Wellness magazine.

Copyright © Southwest Utah Public Health Foundation, all rights reserved.

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