Dotted around the world are areas that we call ‘blue zones,’ home to the healthiest and longest living populations on the planet.
According to experts, a ‘blue zone’ is defined as an area with ‘high concentrations of centenarians, and a notable absence of modern diseases such as heart problems, cancer, and diabetes.’ Some of the most well-known blue zones include the Japanese island of Okinawa, the Barbagia region of Sardinia, and the Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California.
Blue zones are not the world’s most affluent areas. They don’t have a Whole Foods Market on every corner. They don’t have access to the highest tech gyms, the most advanced medication, or even the best doctors.
In fact, the overriding theme of the world’s blue zones is one of remarkable simplicity. Yet these people are living longer and healthier lives than anywhere else on the planet.
So what I want to know is, what can we learn from them?
What lessons can we take from the world’s healthiest populations, and apply them to our own lives to feel better than ever?
Here are the 8 biggest themes that I have found.
1. There is no 'one size fits all' diet
The world’s blue zones are dotted sporadically around the world, with tremendously diverse climates and growing conditions meaning access to a vastly different range of local foods.
On the Japanese island of Okinawa, residents tout the purple sweet potatoes, fermented kombu (an edible seaweed) and shiitake mushrooms as their local ‘superfoods.’ On the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, foods such as black beans, squash and bananas are considered by the locals as their ‘secret to long life.’
Yet despite their diets being so different, both of these locations have the lowest rates of middle aged mortality in the whole world.
Many of the foods available in one blue zone cannot even be found in the other. This tells us there is no ‘one size fits all’ diet, and no miracle food that holds the key to longevity. The secret is simply eating a diverse range of fresh, colourful, plant based food.
And on the subject of plant based food…
2. Plants reign supreme
Surprise surprise! The world’s healthiest and longest living populations survive on a diet of predominantly (or even exclusively) plants.
In areas such as the Barbagia region of Sardinia and the Greek island of Ikaria, very little meat and dairy is consumed, with a small serving of locally caught fish eaten on average once or twice per week. The Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda eschew meat entirely, opting instead for vegetarian and vegan diets. Beans are a staple food in all of the blue zone diets, with soy beans, fava beans, black beans and lentils being the most popular sources of protein.
Given the overwhelming link between animal products and chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and various cancers, this plant based approach should come as no surprise. And uncoincidentally, blue zones also have the lowest recorded occurrences of these diseases anywhere on the planet.
Lesson number two: eat more plants!
3. Fewer food miles
Another consistent theme amongst the blue zones is the focus on locally grown produce. Residents of blue zones have some of the highest concentration of farm land, vegetable plots and allotments anywhere in the world.
The result of this way of life means that food is fresh, seasonal and organic by default. There are no pesticides used, and traditional farming methods mean that soil quality is high and the resulting produce more nutritious.
And whilst I don’t expect you to quit your job and start living entirely off the land any time soon, you can look to reduce the time it takes for your food to get from the ground onto your plate. Shopping at nearby farmers markets and supporting local growers is the perfect place to start.
4. Get outside!
Residents of all of the blue zones spend a tremendous amount of time outdoors. They walk, work, play, farm, garden and socialise outside, meaning they are exposed daily to plenty of fresh air and sunlight.
One striking observation is that blue zones are all found reasonably close to the equator, meaning warmer weather and year-round access to the sun. As we know, regular sunlight exposure is crucial for vitamin D production, mood, and healthy sleep.
If you’re not lucky enough to live on a Mediterranean island or tropical paradise, I recommend paying careful attention to your vitamin D levels and taking a supplement between the months of October – April. Even a little sunlight exposure is better than nothing, so walk to work or take lunch outside if you can brave the cold!
And when summer rolls around, make sure you’re spending as much time in the great outdoors as you can. It really is that important!
5. Move more
Another consistent theme amongst the blue zones is how much they move.
Rarely do we see residents of blue zones go to the gym or even for a jog. Instead, they integrate natural movement into their day to day lives; walking, gardening, or playing sports with friends. They run, jump, crouch, squat, shuffle, dig and climb. Movement is as much a part of their day as eating or sleeping.
If you want to add more weight to your deadlift or improve your pull up technique, exercising like the blue zones is probably not the best training plan to follow. But for overall health and longevity, the lesson is simple. Move more, and your body will thank you.
6. Rest well
Thanks to the climates in which they live, residents of blue zones adjust their sleep habits around the rising and falling of the sun. They go to sleep shortly after dark, and wake at sunrise. The Ikarians of Greece generally go to bed later than the rest of the Blue Zones, but they take afternoon naps to compensate. Total sleep times vary by location, but on average they are sleeping 8 to 9 hours every night.
Getting high quality sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our health, but many of us don’t give it the attention it deserves. Read this article to make sure you are making the most of your time between the sheets.
7. Find your purpose
The Nicoyans call it plan de vida, and the Okinwanans call it ikigai. Roughly, it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Across the Blue Zones, without fail, people have a strong sense of purpose. From an early age they are taught to live every day with intention, with determination, and with gratitude.
What is it that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning and seize the day ahead? It could be your work, your family, travel, music, fitness or art. Find that thing that lights you up inside, follow it with all of your heart, and just watch the magic happen.
8. Build a community
Last but definitely not least is community. Residents of blue zones have close-knit social circles and strong community values. Time with friends and family is prioritised above all else. Partners are committed to for life, children are considered as blessings, and elders are treated with care and respect. Blue Zones create, cultivate, and cherish their relationships.
In Okinawa, one creates a moais at an early age – a small group of friends that commit to each other for life. In Sardinia, villages and towns gather together weekly for meals and celebration. All of the blue zones have strong community and family values that are entrenched into every aspect of their lives.
Prioritising good relationships is one of the most important things you can do for your health and your happiness. Create meaningful friendships. Be fiercely loyal. Build your own tribe. Love like there’s no tomorrow.
I promise it is the biggest thing you can do to improve all aspects of your life.
We all have a lot to learn from the blue zones, but the truth is, none of this is rocket science or ground-breaking information. In fact, the true beauty of the blue zones’ way of life is in the simplicity.
Blue zones don’t follow the latest fad diets or crazy exercise programmes – they stay true to a lifestyle that has sustained generation after generation. They eat well, they move more, they laugh often. They prioritise their health, but crucially, they don’t obsess over it. Isn’t that something we can all get behind?