Real-life lessons in longevity

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When National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner started investigating the world’s longest-lived people a decade ago, he wasn’t sure what he’d find.

For one thing, the so-called Blue Zones where they live were far-flung, stretching from the Japanese island of Okinawa and an Adventist community in Loma Linda, California to Nicoya in Costa Rica and the Italian island of Sardinia. What did they have in common aside from populations that typically lived vigorous lives well past 100? Plenty, as it turns out.

According to Buettner, author of The Blues Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People (2015) about the longevity discoveries he and his scientists made, Blue Zones share nine common traits which are not hard to adapt to modern life. “There’s more to ancient wisdom than we give credit to in our fast-paced, Crackberry world,” he observes. “We all have the capacity to build our own village. It’s all portable. You don’t have to have Here’s how.

Move naturally

From Okinawa to Costa Rica, fit centenarians “engage in regular, low-intensity physical activity, often as part of a daily work routine. Male centenarians in Sardinia’s Blue Zone worked most of their lives as shepherds,” he says. “Okinawans garden for hours each day. Adventists take nature walks.”

While herding goats doesn’t fit modern life, there are ways to incorporate natural exercise. Buettner himself lives near a lake; he walks around it while on the phone and constantly moves when he’s not sitting at his desk.

  •   Move naturally. “Rather than exercising for the sake of exercising, make your lifestyle active,” he says. Ride a bicycle to work, use stairs more often and take a walking break instead of a coffee break.
  •   Try gardening. Almost all Okinawan centenarians have one. It requires a full range of motion to keep joints limber and helps reduce stress.
  •   Like Sardinian shepherds, walk five miles daily. It delivers improved cardiovascular, muscle and joint metabolism without the high impact damage caused by running.

Hara hachi bu

Not only are Okinawans long-lived, they are lean. That’s because they intone before every meal: “Hara hachi bu” or “Eat until you are 80 per cent full”. In other words, they eat just below their kilojoule set point, or the level at which you can consume energy without gaining weight.

“Some of the benefits of cutting calories may lie in reduced cellular damage from free radicals,” explains Buettner. “You lose weight. Losing just 10 percent of one’s body weight helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart disease.”

  •  Eat early. All Blue Zone residents eat their biggest meal early or at midday. “Some Adventists believe that if you eat a big breakfast with the right ingredients like whole grains, fruits, milk and nut butter, you’ll fuel your body for most of the day and have fewer cravings for sugary or fatty foods,” says Buettner.
  • Load your plate at the counter, then store remaining food. A study by eminent US food psychologist Brian Wansink shows you will eat 14 per cent less than if you take smaller amounts and go back for seconds.
  • Weigh yourself. An American study of 3,026 dieters found that after two years, women who weighed themselves daily lost 5.4 kg; those who didn’t gained 2.2 kg.

Eat more plants

“Most centenarians in Nicoya, Sardinia and Okinawa never had the chance to develop the habit of eating processed foods, soda pop or salty snacks,” says Buettner. “For much of their lives, they ate small portions of unprocessed foods. They avoided meat—or more accurately, they didn’t have access to it.”

  •   Limit meat to a few days a week. In three Blue Zones (Adventists are strict vegetarians), it is consumed only on special occasions.
  •   Snack on nuts. Adventists who eat nuts at least five times a week halve their risk of heart disease.
  •  Eat more fruit, legumes and tomatoes. Non-smoking Adventists who have two or more servings of fruit daily have a 70 per cent lower incidence of lung cancer; legumes eaters have a 40 per cent reduced risk of colon cancer and women who eat tomatoes four times a week reduce the risk of ovarian cancer by 70 per cent.

Choose life

“Okinawans call it ikigai, and Nicoyans call it plan de vida, but in both cultures, the phrase essentially translates to ‘why I wake up in the morning’,” says Buettner. It “may act as a buffer against stress and help reduce their chances of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and stroke.”

  •     Develop a personal mission statement by truthfully answering: “Why do I get up in the morning?”
  •     Sense of purpose can come from anywhere—a hobby you throw yourself into, fulfilling volunteer work or learning a new language or musical instrument.

Let go

Unplugging from the day’s work is essential for longevity, says Buettner. “But how does slowing down help you live longer? Slowing life’s pace may help keep the chronic inflammation in check, and theoretically, the related disease at bay.”

Even so, he admits modern life can make it hard. “I think it’s more about knowing when to unplug than to be unplugged altogether,” he explains. “There has to be a clear punctuation at the end of the day.”

  •    Shut down. Turn off all mobile phones, TVs and radios for the first two hours after work.
  •    Learn to meditate. “Regular meditation can allow us to slow down our minds, ridding them of the incessant chatter in our heads,” he says. “It focuses concentration and allows us to see the world as it really is, instead of how we imagine it to be.”

Have faith

In every Blue Zone, spirituality plays a powerful role. According to a recent study in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, those who attend religious services at least once a month reduce risk of death by 33 per cent.

“Belonging to a religious community can foster larger and denser social networks,” Beuttner says. “When individuals undertake and successfully act in ways prescribed by their roles, their self-concept and sense of well-being are reinforced.”

  •   Try following the Adventists’ lead and practice a true, 24-hour Sabbath by focusing on family, camaraderie and nature.
  •    If you’re not religiously-minded, try sampling other faiths to learn more about communities around you.

Family first

“We know that isolated older people die faster,” says Buettner. “A number of things contribute to being isolated, but if you don’t make time for your children, it’s hard for them to make time for us when we’re older.”

  • Okinawans often have Sunday meals at the graves of the dearly departed and maintain household shrines. Set aside a wall in your home to display photos of your family, as a tribute to the important people in your life.
  • Eat at least one meal a day with your family. A recent study by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that teens who ate five meals a week with their families had better relationships and were less apt to become depressed and use drugs.

The right tribe

Positive role models in a handpicked ‘tribe’ of friends is the single most important way to improve your life, says Buettner. “People who drink too much, whose idea of dinner is to supersize their fries and who consistently demonstrate negativity all impact your life. These things will influence you and your children.”

  • Don’t worry, be happy. “Of the centenarians interviewed, there wasn’t a grump in the bunch,” says Beuttner. People who are upbeat, positive and have a sense of purpose draw others to them and have a vast network of caring friends.
  • Spend a half an hour each day with someone in your tribe; take a walk after dinner, eat together, or go through your phone list and call one each night. “Building a strong friendship requires some effort,” observes Buettner, “but it is an investment that can pay back handsomely in added years.”