In recent years social scientists have discovered recurring anomalies that they call “Blue Zones.” There are five of these areas so far that have been found to have large percentages of the population regularly living to be happy and healthy well past one hundred years old. Despite advances in medical technology, most people do not expect to live to one hundred, and do not expect to be happy and healthy at that age, so naturally scientists are trying to define what it is about these blue zones that allow so many thriving centenarians, and so far they have a few ideas.
Staying Active, the Blue Zone Way
One of the things that the citizens of blue zones have in common is that they are usually very active. In some blue zones this comes community exercise sessions, from walking or biking from place to place, or from leading an otherwise active lifestyle, like holding occupations that involve staying fairly mobile throughout their lives rather than overworking in youth and retiring in old age, or worse, not moving at all.
An increasing number of people outside of blue zones have very sedentary lifestyles, as many jobs become increasingly technical. This relegates most of us to careers that involve sitting for long periods of time, which is bad for the joints, and worse for the metabolism.
Even if we can’t all farm citrus fruits for a living, hopefully we can all learn a lesson from the blue zones and try to increase our activity each day, even if just by walking more often, or making time for exercise.
Picking the Right Protein Sources and Portion Sizes
Another commonality among the Blue Zones is that while none of them are strictly vegetarian or vegan, all of them have limited intake of red meat, getting most of their protein from other animal sources like fish and chicken, or from plant sources like nuts and seeds.
While red meat in moderation is perfectly healthy, and is included in the typical diets of most Blue Zone inhabitants, most peoples’ diets have red meat as the primary source of protein, and tend to over-estimate how much protein they need in the first place. While read meat is a good source of iron and protein it is also high in saturated fat, one of the more unhealthy fats that is not found in high concentrations in other protein sources. Red meat is also lower in beneficial oils that are found in high concentrations in fish and in plant sources of protein.
A great example of this is the “Mediterranean Diet” which allows virtually no red meat, but is by no means vegetarian or vegan, substituting chicken and fish for red meats. Other important aspects of the Mediterranean diet include lots of vegetables, healthy oils, and moderate alcohol consumption.
Naturally portion control is a big thing for the citizens of blue zones as well. Many of the inhabitants of blue zones have a philosophy against eating until one feels entirely full, a concept which this blog has touched down on in previous articles. The stomach realizes that it is full via stretch receptors in the stomach walls, but sometimes it takes time for these stretch receptors to send an accurate signal to the brain – scientists think it could take as long as twenty minutes. This means that if you don’t stop eating until you feel full, you’ve likely already over eaten.
What Blue Zone Science has to Say About Alcohol
Only one of the recognized blue zones has a ban on alcohol, while the rest encourage it in moderation. This blog has touched down a couple of times about the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, particularly in the case of red wine, which helps to keep the digestive system healthy and contains an abundance of antioxidants.
What’s interesting is that not all of the blue zone populations have red wines as a dietary staple. This has led some scientists studying the blue zone phenomenon to consider some of the extra-dietary benefits of alcohol in general, including stress relief and social benefits.
Relaxing, Socializing, and Finding Faith
Stress relief is also a regular part of the daily lives of blue zone inhabitants, whether it comes from having a drink with friends, making room for quiet meditation, or just taking a nap. It has long been known that stress naturally changes the body chemistry which allows us to be more alert and able in times of crisis, which is good on the short term. On the long term, however, this change in body chemistry can lead to health issues, not to mention the mental toll that it takes.
Similarly, while only one of the blue zones is strictly religious, the cultures of the other blue zones are religious, or regularly participate in other social gatherings. The health benefits of faith, and participating in social groups have been of interest to scientists for years, as both are found to increase length and quality of life in a number of long-term studies. Even for those who aren’t religious, finding social organizations, clubs, or just a small number of close friends that see each other on a regular basis has been found to decrease the likelihood of depression and increase physical health and wellness.
Members of blue zones also tend to keep very close ties to family, often living with three or more generations in a single habitation. Scientists believe that this insures a greater quality of care for both the elderly and the very young, it likely comes with its own social benefits, and it may help the immune system by reducing the variety of pathogens that each person may be exposed to, even if it may increase the number of similar pathogens.
Even if living past one hundred isn’t a personal goal of yours, living a little more like the inhabitants of blue zones shows a lot of promise in terms of increasing the health and joy in our lives. While many of the above suggestions may not fit into your budget or way of life, making an effort to adopt some of these ideals will likely lead to a happier and healthier life.