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Applying the Blue Zones Framework to Modern Living
Longevity is so much more than a long lifespan.
Longevity is about, not only living a longer life, but also enjoying the most vibrant health possible right into that hundredth year where your daily life can still be filled with physical activity.
To avoid chronic illness and to maintain the physical and mental energy and vitality to do all the things we love, with the people we love — this is longevity. Or, as we like to call it at Next Health, healthspan.
So, during a time when cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic illnesses seem like a natural consequence of aging, how do we beat the odds and increase our longevity?
Well, for starters, we don’t reinvent the wheel. We can find a proven framework for longevity by looking at the communities of the world where people are enjoying a long life and healthspan.
National Geographic Fellow and best-selling author, Dan Buettner, studied the five regions in the world where people live the longest and are also the healthiest. These became known as the “Blue Zones” and they include Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.
These longevity hotspots are home to traditional cultures, such as the Okinawans culture. Their dietary lifestyle habits have remained unchanged for centuries. Therefore, the longevity principles we observe in these areas have proven successful for generations, unlike many of our fad diets and health trends in the west.
So how do they do it? What are these communities doing that the average American isn’t to live into triple digits, without reliance on prescriptions, chronic illness, or constant medical intervention? What is the “magic formula” for a long, healthy life?
A team of leading medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists studied the Blue Zones, searching for the evidence-based common denominators among them.
They found nine key lifestyle factors that these culturally diverse and globally dispersed communities have in common. These came to be known as the “Power 9” and they are grouped into four main lifestyle categories: movement, outlook, eating wisely, and connection.
1. Move Naturally
People in the blue zones don’t hit a 24-hour Fitness to pump some iron on the way to a desk job. In these regions, natural movement is just a way of life.
This is mainly because they don’t have many of the modern conveniences that make daily movement an option, rather than a necessity. Instead, people in these regions grow and tend gardens, hand wash their laundry, and press their own grapes—they move constantly, in a way that is unintentional, natural, and highly beneficial to their health.
Why do you wake up in the morning? According to the research, knowing your sense of purpose may be worth at least seven years of extra life expectancy. In Okinawa this concept is called ikigai, in Nicoya it is plan de vida. People in the blue zones have a deep sense of knowing. They understand and live every day in accordance with their higher purpose.
The Blue Zone centenarians know how to relax and manage stress! They all have a daily routine that helps reset the nervous system, release “happy hormones” like endorphins, and calm the mind.
In Loma Linda, this looks like daily prayer. Ikarians take an afternoon nap. In Sardinia, they do happy hour. The methods are diverse, but the end result—decreased inflammation and better health—is the same .
The 80% rule suggests that you stop eating when your stomach is 80% full. In Okinawa, this is guided by the 2500 year old Confucian mantra, “hara hachi bu.” People in the blue zones also eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and don’t eat for the rest of the day—a sort of unofficial intermittent fasting practice.
2. Plant Slant
Eat mostly plants! That’s what the centenarians do, anyway. In these longevity hotspots, plant-based diets are the norm.
Meat is consumed an average of five times per month, if at all, and in smaller portions— 3 to 4 ounces rather than the standard 8 to 12 ounces we serve in the west. Instead, beans and legumes—fava, black, soy, and lentils—are consumed daily and play a central role in Blue Zone diets.
3. Wine at 5
With the exception of Loma Linda (Seventh Day Adventists), most people in the Blue Zones consume alcohol regularly, but moderately. They typically enjoy 1 to 2 glasses of white or red wine per day, with food, and in the company of friends.
The overwhelming majority of Blue Zone centenarians belong to a faith-based community. It isn’t the denomination that matters, but rather the sense of belonging.
2. Loved Ones First
Family comes first in the Blue Zones. Aging parents and grandparents live nearby, or often in the same home as their children and grandchildren. People in these communities invest time into their relationships—committing to a life partner and nurturing their children.
3. Right Tribe
Personal development guru, Jim Rohn, once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” This certainly seems to hold true with the world’s longest living people, who have lifelong social circles that support healthy behaviors.
So there it is, the blueprint to longevity courtesy of the communities that have been proving its efficacy for centuries.
But how do we apply these principles to 21st century living? Many of these longevity-promoting lifestyle factors are the “norm” in these regions because the Blue Zones are home to traditional cultures. Technology, automation, and other conveniences of modern and urban living are basically nonexistent in these corners of the world.
Let’s talk about how we can apply the fundamental concepts of the Blue Zones to modern-day life, marrying these key lifestyle factors of longevity with advanced wellness technologies, to maximize our healthspan.
With technological advancements came sedentary lifestyles. Most of us spend the majority of our days in front of screens—computers, TVs, cell phones. Plus, we have cars and other forms of transit to take us everywhere we need to go.
Unlike people in the Blue Zones, movement is no longer something we need to do to work, eat, or live. And, unfortunately, it has had negative consequences to our health. Here are some ways to incorporate more natural movement into your modern life:
So how do you know if you are moving enough? With advanced scanning technologies, like Styku and InBody, you can get a full body composition analysis. Obtaining data for your body measurements, shape, muscle/fat composition/obesity, and other useful metrics can shed light on your current state of physical health.
Stress. The pace of modern life has us running a million miles a minute just to keep up with the demands of work, family, and social responsibilities. And if that isn’t stressful enough, we also face unprecedented levels of toxins in our air, food, and water supply which adds an entirely different kind of stress to our bodies’ biological systems.
Chronic emotional and biological stress is at the cornerstone of chronic inflammation, which we now know is associated with virtually every chronic illness, from cancer to heart disease to autoimmunity and every other health care problem in between.
We can certainly take a page from the Blue Zones playbook by adopting a daily downshift routine. Many people find it beneficial to incorporate a mindfulness practice into their morning routine: spending just ten to fifteen minutes every morning in meditation, prayer, walking, or journaling can have powerful health benefits.
Of course, even with a daily stress management routine, the stress of modern life and environmental toxins can sometimes get the best of us, leading us to feel fatigued, overwhelmed, and more susceptible to illness. This is where we can use 21st century technologies to apply Blue Zone principles to today’s lifestyle demands.
Heavy metals testing, for example, is a powerful tool to measure the levels of heavy metals in your body. These environmental contaminants can accumulate in your tissues and create biological stress.
With just a few small dietary changes, you can start to adopt an eating style that follows the principles of the Blue Zones. Try “meat-free Mondays” or opt for beans instead of meat for one meal per day to get more vegetables and legumes in your diet.
Also, feel free to enjoy that wine at 5 if you drink alcohol, preferably with a friend or partner. Just don’t go “saving it up” and overloading on the weekends— the key is moderation. And try to stick with quality wines and spirits to minimize harmful toxins and additives.
The 80% rule is a relatively foreign concept in the west, but one that is worth adopting. Here, portion sizes are usually large enough to feed two people and, yet, many of us feel the obligation (or desire) to clean our plates anyway. Instead, make a conscious effort to stop eating when you are 80% full.
Of course, even a completely Blue Zone-complaint diet may not deliver all the health benefits that it does in these five regions. This is mainly due to modern agriculture methods which have left our soil depleted of important minerals and vitamins. This means the food that grows in our arid soil isn’t as nutrient-dense as the food harvested with traditional farming methods, like in the Blue Zones.
This is why supplementation can be a powerful and necessary tool for 21st century dietary optimization. You can use advanced biomarker testing—like micronutrient testing and food sensitivity testing—to learn exactly what foods and micronutrients your body needs, or doesn’t, and to target your diet and supplementation protocol accordingly.
We also live in a diverse food climate, with regular access to food from nearly every region of the world. This is another thing that Blue Zoners don’t contend with, as their food selection is mostly limited to what is grown in their geographic region. They also consume foods that are genetically appropriate, as their eating habits have been passed down from generation to generation.
With genetic fit testing, you can deconstruct your own DNA to understand what foods are optimal based on your unique genealogy and then, like the Blue Zoners, eat foods that are genetically appropriate for you.
We live in a social media world, yet most people feel more socially isolated than ever, especially during a pandemic. The Blue Zones teach us that prioritizing community, family, and friendships is essential to optimizing our long-term health and wellbeing.
But social networks don't have to be isolating. In fact, it can be a valuable resource to finding the “right tribe”— community and connection with people who prioritize healthy values. The trick is to go beyond the screen: use social media platforms to locate events and connect with people, and then actually show up for face to face interaction and real-life relationship building.