Intrepid traveller, explorer and author, Dan Buettner, has devoted his career to understanding the lifestyles of the world’s healthiest and most long-lived people and bringing that data to the mainstream in ways we can all embrace.
Fuelled by the work of researchers Michel Poulain and Gianni Pes, who first identified Sardinia as having the highest population of male centenarians, Buettner discovered further hotspots of health and longevity around the world and dubbed them ‘Blue Zones’, a term borrowed from Poulain and Pes’ research. These areas are:
- Okinawa (Japan)
- Sardinia (Italy)
- Nicoya (Costa Rica)
- Ikaria (Greece) and,
- Loma Lina – The Seventh Day Adventists (California, USA)
Buettner and his team of demographic researchers have carefully analysed the lives of these people and found that they have 9 key lifestyle factors in common:
- Natural movement: Buettner found that constant incidental exercise was seen in all Blue Zone populations. Think walking, gardening, lifting, heavy house and yard work. Without many of the modern mechanical ‘conveniences’ of the West, people simply move more.
- Purpose: Happy, healthy people in the Blue Zones report a strong sense of purpose, and many reasons ‘to get up in the morning’.
- Stress management: Blue Zones don’t necessarily equate to stress-free areas – no matter where we are in the world, we encounter struggles. But it’s clear that folk in the Blue Zones prioritise unwinding: the Okinawans honour ancestors, Seventh Day Adventists attend church services and pray, Sardinians enjoy a 5pm glass of wine in community and the Ikarians take siesta.
- The 80% Rule: This doesn’t mean ‘cheat eating’ 20% of the time but, rather, only eating to 80% of the stomach’s capacity. Further, Blue Zone populations share early evening meals in common, with a long gap between dinner and bedtime.
- Plant-based diets (but not vegan!): Blue Zone diets are high in legumes, particularly fava beans, soybeans and lentils, and nuts along with wholegrains, fermented foods, fresh vegetables and fruit. It’s important to note that aside from the Adventists, who are vegetarian, all Blue Zone populations eat animal foods, but in much smaller quantities than we do in the West – averaging a piece of meat or fish the volume of a deck of cards around once a week.
- Happy Hour: While the Adventists are teetotallers, all other Blue Zone populations drink alcohol in moderation; usually the equivalent of 1-2 small glasses of wine, and usually with friends and family with a meal.
- Faith: Out of 263 centenarians interviewed for the Blue Zone research, only 5 did not ‘have faith’, Yes, the vast majority belonged to organised church or faith groups and attended services once a week on average.
- Family First: Having a long term life partner, spending plenty of quality time with children and caring for ageing family are standard cultural norms in Blue Zone groups.
- Belonging: All the Blue Zones have healthy, thriving social networks in place, with the Okinawans even having a tradition of ‘moais’ – teams of five friends that make a life commitment to their group friendship.
It’s fascinating that a demographic study like the one embarked on by Dan Buettler can tell us so much about human health and happiness. His ‘Power 9’ principles can help us to connect in with our human needs, where we are thriving and where we may need a little extra focus, too.