Creating a Blue Zone
When I think back on my time at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I remember one of my favorite lectures being about a topic that had little to do with nutrition. It was actually a presentation about how all aspects of lifestyle and environment contribute to health. Dan Buettner author of “Blue Zones” was the speaker who delivered the inspirational lecture, that had moved me on that particular day.
Buettner was telling the story of how he had traveled the world to find the communities where people had the greatest longevity. Places where people not only lived to be one hundred years old and beyond, but people who actually thrived and lived happily and healthfully. He called these areas in the world, “Blue Zones”. Buettner described Blue Zones as little pockets of vitality. In these communities, healthy lifestyles were naturally supported and the people living in them reaped the benefits, without ever having to strive to be healthy.
Through Buettner’s research he discovered that these Blue Zones around the world actually shared 9 common practices.
1) Move Naturally
Rather than going to the gym, activities like gardening, or going on long leisurely walk daily, were common among Blue Zone communities.
2) Destress Throughout the Day
Managing stress was actually a strong predictor of longevity. Practices such a praying, taking naps during the day and meditating were all predictors of greater longevity.
3) Know Your Purpose
Feeling that you have a reason to wake up every morning and contribute to the world is not only good for your psyche. As it turns out, it is good for the body too. Whether you feel that your purpose is to care for your kids or to do a specific job, knowing your purpose means that you will most likely live longer than someone who is still searching for one.
4) Eat Less
Blue Zone communities discourage over eating. In some of these cultures, people will actually give a verbal reminder to their families, before a meal, to only eat until they are 80% full. Stuffing ourselves at meal time is strongly correlated with higher morbidity rates.
5) Eat Less Meat and More Beans
Very few of the Blue Zone communities were vegetarian, but they did all emphasize a plant based diet. According to Buettner, the people who live the longest, ate meat only about 5 times per month.
6) Drink in Moderation
Surprisingly the majority of Blue Zone communities would drink alcohol daily, in moderation, of course. Having 1-2 glasses of wine per day seems to have a positive affect on health.
7) Have Faith
Each Blue Zone had a faith. It didn’t matter which religion or faith that they followed, but by simply believing in something, they increase their life span.
8) Put Family First
Being close to your family. Even living with parents and grandparents is a strong predictor of good health. Cultures that hold a positive attitude towards aging often consist of people who live long, healthy lives.
9) Stay Social
Friendships matter a lot. If you have at least 3 good friends, people who will be there for you in good times and bad, you will live significantly longer than people who don’t. I am not talking about a couple of years, either. Having close friends means that you can live almost 10 years longer. Isn’t that amazing! Even more interesting is that healthy habits are contagious. Buettner quoted a study that found that if a persons three closest friends are overweight then they are 150% more likely to be overweight themselves, than a person who doesn’t have overweight friends. The same holds true for friends who follow a healthier lifestyle. There is an ancient proverb that says, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” Who we associate with the most determines what we do the most throughout our day. If we understand the impact that our social ties have on our lives, we should be careful when choosing our friends.
I think the reason why Buettner's lecture struck such a cord with me is because it really speaks to my true beliefs about health. In order to feel whole and vibrant, we actually have to create a lifestyle that supports all parts of ourselves. If we are meticulous about what we eat, but we don’t manage our stress and we engage in destructive relationships, we are not going to feel healthy. Period.
If you’re still thinking that none of this stuff really matters and that the key to longevity is in your genes, then think again. According to his studies, Buettner found that only 20% of longevity is determined through genes while a whooping 80% is in our control, through our lifestyle choices and the environments where we spend most of our time.
It has become common knowledge that today’s generation of children not expected to live as long as their parents. As Buettner so poignantly put it, “[Our kids are in trouble], not because we love them less than our parents loved us. It is not because we have all of a sudden become stupid. It is simply because our environments have changed.”
Evolutionarily speaking our bodies are design for scarcity. Back in the day, food was hard to find so our bodies craved the fatty, salty and sugary foods, for storage. This behavior ensures our survival. In todays society, you can’t walk down the street without being bombarded by fast food restaurants, convenience stores. Candy is literally available everywhere, from the grocery store, to the pharmacy. Even my local craft store has a candy isle. Even when junk food is not present, we are still constantly flooded with advertisements for the foods that will take years off of our lives. It is definitely harder to avoid the bad stuff than it is to indulge in it.
Our environments are set up for convenience and a sedentary life style. Office jobs, long commutes and a fast paced lifestyle keeps most of us glued to a chair and loosing years on our life. Movement is life. The more we can integrate movement into our lives the healthier we will be.
So, I think it is pretty obvious that our environment is the key to our longevity. I believe very strongly in the power of community. I also believe that strong social networks are one of the most powerful contributors to happiness and well being. This is the reason that I have created “Westchester Mothers for a Healthier Tomorrow.” This is a group where health conscious moms can support each other in their efforts to live a healthier life. We learn together, we socialize together, and we raise our children with an awareness that being healthy means taking care of our whole self - mind, body and spirit.
If you live in Westchester County, NY and you would like to develop a network of friends that will support you in your health goals, pleasen visit www.Meetup.com and join us at “Westchester Mothers for a Healthier Tomorrow". Let’s practice the habits that will help our families to live long, happy and full lives. We may even create a new Blue Zone ;)