Upon returning home in early October after traveling three months around western United States and Canada, I knew I needed to change. I gained ten pounds and the reasons for the added weight were clear: I exercised less due to a knee injury and my eating habits were not healthy, both in volume and quality. I wasn’t going to McDonalds every day for a Big Mac, but I did splurge on sugar and caffeine when my energy declined or my palate desired sweets. We drove long distances and these fattening stimuli kept me wide awake while the lack of movement only exacerbated the problem. I decided to do some research and reverse the weight gains.
Dan Buettner, an American National Geographic Fellow and founder of Blue Zones, wrote The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (National Geographic Partners LLC, Washington, DC, 2012). I heard about his research from a National Geographic article, and I was curious since I am getting older and would like to live longer. I also purchased two other Blue Zones books that contained recipes. Over the past several months, I have put his theories into practice, although I am still a novice. The good news is that my weight is slowly going in reverse.
Buettner researched communities that lived, on average, significantly longer lives. Statistically, Blue Zones are outliers. All people age and eventually die, but why do some individuals in areas of the world live longer and healthier? What common characteristics do these long-life communities share? This is what Buettner wanted to understand.
He details five communities in his book: Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Loma Linda (California), Nicoya (Costa Rica), and Ikaria (Greece). While each of these zones have unique diets and socio-economic conditions, they share some common characteristics. First, they eat high levels of plant-based foods. Meat is infrequently eaten, usually during holidays or a few times each month. Protein is derived from beans, nuts, and small amounts of fish. Except for Loma Linda, the reason for the low consumption of meat is economic: they can’t afford it. Most communities live on their agricultural products which vary by region. Meals are simple and quantities limited. Three of the zones are remote and have minimal contact with modern processed food. The other two zones make healthy choices based on historic or religious practices.
A second commonality is liquid refreshment. All Blue Zones drink water regularly and shun sodas and caffeinated drinks. Again, this practice is primarily due to economics, religious beliefs, and remoteness. Interestingly, some of these communities drink red wine regularly with meals. One or two glasses a day are consumed in social settings, and alcoholism is not an issue.
Daily exercise is also a consistent part of a Blue Zones lifestyle. Exercising does not include gym work or running but is attained through their daily work lives. The men farm or raise animals which require rigorous walking and manual labor. The women raise children, cook, and walk to markets. Some of the zones are mountainous which requires strenuous walking. Economics make car ownership nearly impossible for most of these regions.
Living within a community of family and friends is another common factor in Blue Zones. Intergenerational families live in the same home. Grandparents are expected to help raise the children and contribute to household chores. In addition, individuals develop and maintain moais (social networks) that care for each other and provide deep lifelong connections. Community bonding improves mental health and gives meaning to living.
And finally, religion is a common trait practiced in Blue Zones. Loma Linda is a Seventh-day Adventist community, a Protestant Christian denomination founded in the mid-19th century by Ellen G. White (1827–1915). They celebrate the Sabbath similarly to Jews, advocate vegetarianism, avoid alcohol and caffeine, and adhere to conservative Christian sexual practices. Loma Linda differs from the other four Blue Zones because they are primarily middle class and can easily afford to live like most Americans. Instead, they choose a simpler lifestyle founded upon religious beliefs.
As I researched Blue Zones, I wondered if modern practices are a step backward rather than forward in health. Modern medicine has certainly led to longer and healthier lives. However, processed foods, stressful working conditions, environmental destruction, and the decline of religious institutions have contributed to a lower quality of life. I would never recommend church attendance to an unbeliever as a strategy to live longer because one can easily find community in secular institutions. But spirituality does have its benefits.
Religion allows humans to focus beyond themselves on something that is far greater. In my case, Christianity gives me hope when situations seem hopeless. When I fail, grace is given, and I feel whole again. I don’t fear death as it does not have the final say. I feel joy in my community of believers and have cultivated moais. My hope is that more people will examine their lifestyles, do some research, and adopt healthier lifestyles that include participating in a spiritual community. It just might add a few more joyful years to your life.