Life

What We Can Learn from Blue Zones—Five of the Most Healthful Regions in the World

5 min read

Blue Zones are the regions of the world where residents live the longest. What healthy habits can we learn from these cultures?
Blue Zones are the regions of the world where residents live the longest. What healthy habits can we learn from these cultures?

Essential Takeaways

  • Meet the Blue Zones: five regions around the world where residents reportedly live the longest, healthful lives.
  • From an emphasis on plant-based diets to viewing friendship as the utmost priority, there are certain lifestyle habits that these regions have in common.

In our modern culture, it can often feel like we're prescribed a laundry list of items in the pursuit of "wellness"—to work out for X amount of hours a week; to cut out certain foods; to work incredibly hard but also find the time to meditate every day.

But if we actually took a look at some of the areas of the world where people are truly living long, healthy lives, we might find that their approach to wellbeing is a bit different: less of a to-do list, and more of a way of life. It's walking and gardening instead of hitting the gym. It's enjoying local foods with a glass of wine, and viewing friendship as a sacred priority.

The term “Blue Zone” is used to describe five regions across the world where residents reportedly live much longer than the global average. It was first popularized by bestselling author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, who has partnered with demographers to compile much of the data around the quality of life in these regions, along with some of the commonalities these populations share. (1)

And that’s something worth noting right off the bat. While these Blue Zones span five countries and four continents, their residents do have several healthy lifestyle habits in common—from some of the foods they eat to their outlook on life. Could these possibly serve as clues to longevity? Let’s dig in.

Blue Zone #1: Sardinia, Italy

Blue Zones: Sardinia, Italy

This mountainous island on the Mediterranean doesn’t just boast an incredibly picturesque setting—it’s also home to one of the highest proportions of centenarians in the world, specifically men. (In most regions across the world, women tend to outlive men.) (1,2)

In addition to walking a few miles every day, Sardinians eat a largely plant-based diet of whole grains, beans, local vegetables and fruits. And it’s worth mentioning that this is Italy: Wine is a staple of the cuisine (in moderation, of course). Sardinians enjoy a variety that’s particularly rich in polyphenols—antioxidant-rich micronutrients that scientists have linked with health benefits. (3)

Blue Zone #2: Okinawa, Japan

Blue Zones: Okinawa

This group of islands off the coast of Japan is home to some of the longest-living women in the world. One particularly noteworthy custom of Okinawan culture is its heavy emphasis on social interaction: Residents are placed into social networks called moai as young as 5 years old, which offer a lifetime safety net of financial and emotional support. Buettner suspects that this emphasis on lifelong friendship mitigates some of the stress that can undercut longevity. (1,4)

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Blue Zone #3: Nicoya, Costa Rica

Blue Zones: Costa Rica

In this peninsula along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the elders abide by a “plan de vida,” or “reason to live:” that means maintaining a positive outlook, prioritizing family, and staying active. Nicoyans also enjoy a largely unprocessed, plant-based diet rich in tropical fruits. (1)

Blue Zone #4: Ikaria, Greece

Blue Zones: Ikaria

You’re probably well aware that many experts cite a Mediterranean diet as one of the healthiest styles of eating—that means getting your fill of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats like olive oil. Ikarians are Exhibit A: The residents of this tiny Greek island live, on average, 8 years longer than Americans do. In addition to enjoying this kind of Mediterranean cuisine, it’s also customary in Ikaria to take a mid-afternoon break every day. (1,5)

Blue Zone #5: Loma Linda, California

Blue Zones: Loma Linda, California

Did you know that members of this Southern California community tend to outlive the average American by a decade? Interestingly, Loma Linda boasts a large Adventist population—which means there’s an emphasis on a vegan diet and observing a day of rest every weekend. Buettner also notes that many residents of Loma Linda enjoy an active schedule into their 90s, making a point to move their bodies and engage with their communities. (1)

What the Blue Zones have in common

No surprises here—as you may have noticed, some of the lifestyle choices of those who live in Blue Zone regions definitely overlap.

Diet: All five of these regions emphasize an unprocessed diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. There’s also a focus on moderation: Okinawans, for example, abide by a rule to stop eating when they’re 80% full. Other Blue Zone residents save their smallest meal for the end of the day and don’t eat anything else after that. (1)

Exercise: Buettner notes that these communities aren’t hitting the gym for hours or running marathons—instead, they incorporate moderate activity (like walking or gardening) into their daily routines.

Alcohol: …in moderation, of course. With the exception of Adventists in Loma Linda, Blue Zone residents enjoy alcohol on a regular basis—sake in Okinawa, and wine in Ikaria and Sardinia.

Taking a breather: Scientists have drawn a definite link between stress and a negative impact on longevity. But one thing Blue Zone residents have in common is a regular outlet to mitigate this stress—whether that’s taking a nap, imbibing with friends, or practicing faith. (6)

Friendship: It’s no coincidence that Blue Zone residents all place a premium on community and prioritizing their loved ones. Beyond the psychological and emotional benefits of having a support system in place, surrounding yourself with like-minded friends can help reinforce healthy habits. (7)

References:

  1. Buettner, Dan, and Sam Skemp. “Blue Zones.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, vol. 10, no. 5, July 2016, pp. 318–321., doi:10.1177/1559827616637066.
  2. Around the Globe, Women Outlive Men. (n.d.). Retrieved from Population Reference Bureau
  3. Fernandes, I., Pérez-Gregorio, R., Soares, S., Mateus, N., & Freitas, V. D. (2017). Wine Flavonoids in Health… Molecules, 22(2), 292. doi: 10.3390/molecules22020292
  4. Rico-Uribe, L. A. (2018). Association of loneliness… A meta-analysis. PLOS One. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0190033
  5. Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A., & Martin-Calvo, N. (2016). Mediterranean diet and… beyond olive oil, fruits, and vegetables. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 19(6), 401–407. doi: 10.1097/mco.0000000000000316
  6. “Affective reactivity…Findings from the National Study of Daily Experiences”: Correction to Chiang et al. (2018). (2019). Health Psychology, 38(8), 758–758. doi: 10.1037/hea0000756
  7. The health benefits of good friends. (2019, August 24). Retrieved from Mayo Clinic

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