Imagine a place where many people live to 100 years old — and not just live, but thrive. The people of this community are healthy and filled with vitality, passion, and energy well into their 90s and beyond. This place exists. Actually, five of them do.
We’re talking about Blue Zones. These communities have cracked the code on enhancing longevity and healthspan. Now, we can take cues from how they live to follow in their footsteps.
What Are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones are “places on Earth with the longest-lived, healthiest communities,” writes leading functional medicine expert Mark Hyman, MD in his new book, Young Forever: The Secrets to Living Your Longest, Healthiest Life.
The concept of Blue Zones originated with researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology. They identified Sardinia, Italy as the region with the highest concentration of people who lived to 100. They drew blue circles on a map of the villages with the highest longevity — hence the name Blue Zones.
National Geographic explorer and author Dan Buettner took it a step further and identified several more longevity hotspots. In addition to Sardinia, these Blue Zones include: Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.
“These communities have up to 20 times the number of people reaching 100 years old or more than in the United States,” writes Dr. Hyman, who visited the Blue Zones on his quest to unlock the secrets of healthy living. What he found: “What makes the communities unique is not their genetics — when Blue Zone inhabitants move to a more modern world, their disease and death rates parallel everyone else’s. It is something else.”
Quality Over Quantity
What is that something else? In a word: lifestyle. The well-known Danish Twin study found that 20% of how long the average person lives is dictated by our genes, whereas the other 80% is determined by our lifestyle. Inhabitants of the Blue Zones focus on lifestyle and environmental habits that enhance not only quantity but quality of life.
“While a lot of the tools of modern medicine allow us to prolong one’s lifespan, this is not always in good health or with great quality of life,” says Lifeforce Physician Renae Thomas, MD, MPH, who trained in a Blue Zone at Loma Linda University Health. “The goal for most people is not necessarily old age, but to enhance and extend their healthspan, that is maximizing the number of years one has in good health, and with valuable quality of life.”
The Blue Zones have achieved that goal. Dr. Hyman writes, “Most of the villagers I met in the Blue Zones have a healthspan equal to their lifespan. Many arrive at 100 years old active, healthy, imbued with a sense of purpose, and connected in a deep web of community.”
9 Habits We Can Learn From Blue Zones
Through his research, Buettner found that all five Blue Zones share nine specific lifestyle traits. He dubbed these the ‘Power 9,’ and they can teach us powerful lessons about our own wellness habits. According to his work at Blue Zones LLC, they are:
1. Move Naturally
According to Buettner’s study, “The world’s longest-lived people do not pump iron, run marathons, or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it.” That often looks like growing their own food in gardens, walking, and doing house and yard work.
2. Identify Your Purpose
Called “Ikigai” by the Okinawans and “plan de vida” by the Nicoyans, this translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing that purpose and living with it in mind every day can add up to seven years to your life, per the study.
3. Slow Down
Stress can lead to chronic inflammation in the body, which is associated with major diseases that impact healthspan and lifespan. A poll finds that 87% of Americans have reported high stress levels over the past two years. People in Blue Zones aren’t immune to stress — but they have regular routines to feel more peaceful. Okinawans take a few minutes daily to remember their ancestors, Ikarians take a nap, and Sardinians destress with a glass of red wine.
4. Try the 80% Rule
An Okinawan mantra said before meals, “Hara hachi bu,” reminds people to finish their meals when their stomachs are 80% full. Blue Zone inhabitants also eat their last and smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening.
5. Plant Slant
People in Blue Zones lean toward plant-based diets, with beans and lentils being staples. Meat — with serving sizes of two to three ounces — is eaten an average of five times a month. Fish, including anchovies, sardines, and cod, are kept to servings of three ounces or less, once or twice a week.
6. Wine @ 5
Many Blue Zone communities raise a glass to their health, but do so in moderation — typically 1 to 2 glasses of wine a day (1 glass = 3-4 oz) with food and friends. Dr. Thomas notes that Loma Linda is an exception to this rule. “They do not drink alcohol — or caffeine for that matter! — and this is believed to contribute to their longevity.”
Most centenarians studied belonged to some type of faith or spiritual community. The denomination didn’t seem to matter — the important aspect was belonging and community. This could also look like a community group or non-profit organization.
8. Loved Ones First
Blue Zone communities tend to keep their aging parents and grandparents in their home or nearby, commit to a life partner, and invest their time and love into their children and other family members.
9. Find Your Tribe
People who live the longest surround themselves with friends and loved ones who support their healthy behaviors and follow a healthy lifestyle of their own. Studies show that healthy behaviors — and unhealthy ones — can be contagious.
Bringing These Practices Into Your Life
Blue Zones often have simpler lifestyles that feel different from our busy, modern world — but that doesn't mean these lessons can’t hit close to home. Dr. Hyman writes, “We cannot go back to live in the world of a thousand years ago, but we can learn the lessons of the Blue Zones and build our own zones within our homes, our family, our friends, and our community.”
You don’t need to rush to adopt all nine habits. Dr. Thomas suggests starting one at a time. “Start with the easiest, or the one that feels the most valuable or realistic to you,” she says. “For example, if you live far from your family, perhaps you could focus on getting outside and moving more. If you live in a place that has unfavorable weather for most of the year, you might consider including more plant-based foods.”
You can also take a cue from Blue Zones when it comes to moderation. For most centenarians, it’s a long game — quite literally. The secret is not intensity, it’s consistency. “In Blue Zones, there is nothing particularly extreme, and a lot of their good health outcomes are attributed to a lifetime of consistently making sustainable healthy choices,” says Dr. Thomas.
“There’s no 5 am burpee-centered bootcamp starting January 1st, but there is movement daily. There’s no extreme calorie or macronutrient restriction, but there is a focus on making predominately healthy food choices the majority of the time,” says Dr. Thomas. “What I like to take away from that is that a lot of long-term health is making health-promoting choices that you enjoy, are realistic, work with your lifestyle, and that you can sustain for years.”
That will look different for everyone, but Dr. Hyman sums it up best when he writes, “The lessons are clear. Live close to nature. Love deeply. Eat simple food raised sustainably (ideally by your own hands). Move naturally. Laugh and rest. Actually live. (And live longer, as it turns out.)”
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This article was medically reviewed by:
Renae Thomas, MD, MPH; ABFM Board Certified in Family Medicine, ABPM Board Certified in Public Health, & General Preventive Medicine; ABLM Board Certified in Lifestyle Medicine
Vinita Tandon, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Endocrinology and Metabolism