I first heard about the Blue Zones (or the five regions of the world where people consistently experience the greatest longevity: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California), from an episode of Down to Earth with Zac Efron where he visits one such region in Sardinia, Italy. I’ll admit: Before learning about Blue Zones, I wasn’t too concerned with living to be over 100 years old as a girl in my 20s, but if Zac Efron is involved, it has my attention. Once I learned that members of Blue Zones experience less disease, live healthier lives, and eat more carbs, I was officially intrigued.
But how to live a long life with less sickness isn’t just as simple as eating more pasta—or even just diet in general. In fact, Dan Buettner and his research team determined nine common lifestyle behaviors, called the Power 9, among these communities in an effort to pinpoint why these populations were well outliving the rest of the world—and having fewer symptoms, more energy, better mood, and less chronic disease. Turns out these lessons can greatly impact the quality of our lives too, no matter where we live. Read on for a list of the habits of the healthiest people in the world and how to implement them in your life.
1. Work out less and move more
Unlike most people you probably know, you won’t find people from Blue Zones in the gym running on the treadmill or setting aside 60 minutes a day to lift weights. Instead, they live more naturally active lifestyles. Think: walking everywhere instead of driving, tending to a garden, or having an active career like a fisherman. This keeps them more active throughout the day rather than dedicating a set amount of time to being active during a workout. While we probably don’t all have time to walk to every destination or work in our garden each afternoon, there are small ways we can incorporate more natural exercise into our day: park farther away from entrances so you have to walk a bit farther, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or use a standing desk at work. Also, rethink the way you see your free time: After a long day of sitting at your office, would a walk while catching up with a friend actually feel more rewarding than sitting on the couch watching TV?
2. Find your purpose
This may sound more woo-woo than diet or exercise, but it’s actually proven to be an important factor in longevity and optimal health. As Buettner explains, “Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.” Purpose is an essential part of each Blue Zone: Okinawans call it Ikigai and Nicoyans call it plan de vida, but it translates to the same concept: why you wake up in the morning. Having purpose can help you to live with intention; you’re no longer just going through the motions, but instead actively pursuing something that brings meaning to your life.
Your purpose can be anything from pursuing happiness to enjoying the most time with your family to a cause you’re passionate about. If you’re still unsure where to find your purpose, I recommend looking at your human design, which gives you your purpose based on your astrological chart. Many people also look to your midheaven, or the highest point in the sky when you were born, for direction in life. If all else fails, ask yourself one simple question: “What would it take for me to live my most happy, fulfilling life possible?”
3. Find ways to relieve stress—and prioritize them
While those in the Blue Zones aren’t immune from stress (stressors are a part of the human experience), they certainly seem to know how to handle it better than the rest of us. Chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation and, according to Buettner, is associated with every major age-related disease. The important part is not to get rid of the stressors (again, part of the human experience), but to know how to relieve that stress, and then prioritize those activities over everything else. After a stressful work day, they don’t sit in front of the TV or continue to work until bedtime. Buettner shares that Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap, and Sardinians do happy hour—all very different routines that have the same outcome: relieve stress. You could also try meditating, cold plunging, walking, reciting affirmations, or calling your mom after a stressful day.
4. Eat consciously and listen to your body
For longevity and a better quality of life, it turns out it’s not just about what you eat but how. Those who live in Blue Zones implement the 80% rule when eating, meaning they stop eating a meal when their stomachs are 80% full. In a society where many were taught that the goal is to have a fully clean plate at the dinner table (clean plate club, anyone?), this can be a big adjustment. Practice mindful eating and check in with your body often to stop eating before you get stuffed.
But the amount of food is not the same at every meal for every Blue Zone community. “People in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.,” Buettner explained. If you’re interested in trying this part of the Blue Zone lifestyle, make breakfast and lunch your biggest meals of the day, and then eat a smaller dinner (dare I say, a girl dinner) at least a few hours before bed.
5. Incorporate more plants into your diet
You won’t hear people in Blue Zones referring to themselves with trendy diet labels like vegan or plant-based, but you will see plenty of vegetables and whole foods incorporated into their diet. Beans are one of the prominent ingredients in meals throughout all five regions. They also rarely eat meat, having it only about five times a month, and when they do eat meat, Buettner notes that it’s likely a 3-4 ounce serving of pork. It may be tough to go from full-on carnivore to herbivore overnight, but participating in Meatless Monday is an easy way to make the transition and get more plants in your diet. And of course—as always—do what feels best for you and listen to your body. If your body craves meat, give it what it’s asking for. Instead, practice the Blue Zone way by incorporating more nutrient-dense vegetables and beans into your diet.
6. Drink a glass of wine regularly—in moderation
It may surprise you, but drinking is a common part of life in the Blue Zones and another key factor they all (except Adventists) have in common. In fact, Buettner claims that moderate drinkers live longer than non-drinkers. It’s important to note that we’re not talking about bottomless mimosas at brunch or tequila sodas every Friday night (sorry). Those in Blue Zones drink one to two glasses of local wine with friends or while eating dinner. The health benefits here are likely on account of the high level of polyphenols and antioxidants in the wine they drink, or even because it represents a daily practice of slowing down and enjoying food with community, so keep that in mind when applying this practice to your life. This also may not work for everyone, so consult with your doctor before adding frequent alcohol consumption to your diet.
7. Practice some form of spirituality
Another key factor these Blue Zone communities have in common is belonging to a faith-based community, regardless of denomination. In fact, the vast majority of centenarians (people who live to be over 100) Buettner interviewed belonged to some kind of faith-based community. Much like knowing your life’s purpose, having something larger than yourself to believe in and finding a community within that belief system can help you live longer. According to Buettner, research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy. Of course, this can look like joining a faith organization or other organized religious community, but it can also mean reading spiritual books to explore what clicks with you or finding a group of friends where you can discuss topics like purpose, grief, and belonging.
8. Put family and loved ones first
So often, most of us put work or other obligations first. Think about it: How many times have you called your mom back after finishing your to-do list first, didn’t take the trip to visit your best friend because you were too busy, or put your career first even though you really wanted to seek a relationship? In Buettner’s research, centenarians undoubtedly put their loved ones first. With such busy lives, many of us might feel this is difficult to do, but Buettner notes that it is essential to our health. For example, his research found that living with or near aging parents and grandparents can lower disease and mortality rates of children in the home, and committing to a life partner can add up to three years to your life expectancy. Putting this into practice in your life is easy: call loved ones more often, visit and communicate with elderly relatives consistently, and remember the only purpose of having a longer life is to have more time with the people you love.
9. Have a positive social circle
Having a strong community is essential; loneliness is a key factor for poor health. People in the Blue Zones have this figured out, each having a system or community in place to ensure that everyone has lasting, fulfilling, and deep friendships. For example, Okinawans created a system called moais, or groups of five friends they are born into that are committed to each other for life. This ensured that everyone had a deep community and strong connection, rather than just surface-level friendships. And they spend more time with this social circle than they spend with strangers, coworkers, etc.
But it’s not just about having a social circle but having a positive one. You’ve probably heard that you’re the product of the five people you hang out with the most. Every Blue Zone community chooses or is born into social circles that support healthy behaviors. Research from Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. In other words, if you surround yourself with unhealthy, unhappy people, you are more likely to be unhappy and unhealthy. If you surround yourself with happy, healthy people, you are more likely to be happy and healthy. If you’re having trouble finding like-minded, positive people to spend quality time with, consider joining groups based on healthy habits such as a book club or a group exercise class.