As we celebrate the 101st birthday of one of our favorite members and very special friend, Simone Johnson, I ponder why some people are fortunate to have such an astounding healthy life while others succumb to common chronic diseases associated with aging. We can’t all be guaranteed to live a healthy life past 100 since we can’t choose our parents. However, research shows 70% to 90% of our lifespan and avoidance of disease can be attributed to lifestyle.
“Blue Zones” refer to geographic regions that are home to some of the oldest and healthiest people in the world. Although their lifestyles differ slightly, they mostly eat a plant-based diet, exercise regularly, drink moderate amounts of alcohol, get enough sleep and have good spiritual, family and social networks. The term was coined by the author Dan Buettner. They are called Blue Zones because researchers studying these areas, drew blue ink circles around them on a map.
People who live in a Blue Zone have nine characteristics in common, according to researchers. For the Blue Zones Project, these are called “Power 9 Principles.” By incorporating these factors and adopting a Blue Zone lifestyle, it is thought the average person can increase life expectancy by up to 12 years. These nine principles are outlined below.
Move naturally: In the Blue Zones, people live in cultures that are naturally active. They live in environments where movement comes naturally without much thought. Studies show the benefits of exercise in reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease and overall death. One study of more than 13,000 men predicted how long they would live based on the distance they walked or stories of stairs they climbed each day. Unfortunately for most modern Americans, we have office jobs and relatively sedentary lifestyles. We must purposely try to move through structured exercise since our environments are not geared for movement.
Know your purpose: People who know why they get up in the morning live up to seven years longer than those who don’t. In Okinawa, Japan, they call it “ikigai.” In the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, they call it “plan de vida.” For both Blue Zone areas, it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.”
Down shift: People in the Blue Zones have routines to shed stress. To reverse inflammation related to every major age-related disease, find time each day to meditate, nap, pray or enjoy a happy hour.
Eat wisely and less: It takes the stomach 20 minutes to tell the brain it is full, causing most people to accidentally overeat. Eat slower and stop eating when 80 percent full. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
Plant slant: Eat a mostly plant-based diet heavy on beans, whole grains, nuts and green plants. Animal protein, if eaten, usually is from fish and other seafood. Red meat is consumed less than five times a month.
Wine at 5: Of all the designated Blue Zones, only the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, Calif., didn’t drink. One or two glasses of red wine daily are shown to have health benefits. In the Blue Zone of the mountainous highlands of Sardinia, Sardinian Cannonau wine is drank. It is made from Grenache grapes, shown to have extremely high levels of antioxidants. Antioxidants help prevent damage to DNA that can contribute to aging.
Family first: Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. Living in a thriving family is worth six extra years of life expectancy.
Belong: Recommit, reconnect or explore a faith-based community. No matter which faith, studies show that people who show up to their faith community four times a month live an extra four to 14 years. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter.
Right tribe: Stay social. I’m not talking about your canine friends curled up on the couch beside you or your virtual social media friends. The world’s longest-lived people have social circles that support healthy behaviors. Expand your social circle to include healthy-minded, supportive people. This could be the most powerful way to add years to your life.
Follow healthier lifestyle behaviors and age will be just a number. Hopefully, we can all live lives like those in the Blue Zones or if we’re very fortunate like the “Simone zone!” Happy 101, Simone. We love and admire you. Thanks for giving all of us who know you an inspirational glimpse of what a truly purposeful life looks like.
Perry Buchanan, owner of PT Gym, is certified as an exercise physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine, and fitness nutrition specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ptgym on Twitter.