Blue Zones and Slow Living

What do a Sardinian sheepherder, a religious Californian, and a Japanese fisherman have in common? Many of us would be ready to say “nothing,” but we would be wrong.
Yes, because there are places around the world where there are communities with a unique feature: the inhabitants live about a decade longer than the rest of the world’s population.

I’m talking about the Blue Zones—5 areas originally identified by researchers from National Geographic, and Dan Buettner, who analyzed their inhabitants. In appearance, they seemed so different, but all have the peculiarity of being much more long-lived than most others.

According to UN data, the average life expectancy at birth for 2019 is 72.6 years, while blue zone residents live over 82 years, and even have the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world.

But what are these zones?

Well, let’s not be fooled by the name, the blue zones have nothing to do with the sea. Although, it is proven, living near a body of water brings numerous benefits for both physical and mental health.

The history of blue zones begins with a study published in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain. The two wanted to identify clusters in Sardinia where the population had the highest concentration of male centenarians, and they circled these areas right in blue. That’s it—nothing scientific about it—blue zones are named for a graphic choice.

The research is then extended beyond southern Italy by Buettner who, as we said before, identified 5 areas around the world with a concentration of people that lives longer than the local and world average. Let’s see where they are:

  • Loma Linda, California, California. This hilly area in San Bernardino County is home to the Seventh-day Adventist church community, whose elders are known to live a decade longer than the rest of the US population.

  • Nicoya peninsula, Costa Rica, has the lowest middle-aged mortality rate and the second-highest concentration of centenarians in the world.
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  • Ogliastra in Sardinia, is the first blue zone ever identified. The inhabitants have a particular genetic marker, M26, connected to extreme longevity that leads many men to be over 100 years old.

  • Ikaria, a beautiful Greek island in the Aegean Sea where one in three seniors reaches 90 and senile dementia is almost non-existent.

  • Okinawa, an island in the south of Japan also known as “the land of the immortals” and where women in particular live longer than any other women on the planet.

 

How do people so far apart have in common the ability to live so long?

That’s what the researchers have been asking. Their studies have led them to identify nine common traits in the lifestyles of the blue zones.

The “Power 9” are key points in the lives of these people who, depending on where they live, prioritize one or the other, but they are all present to create a balanced, long-lived and healthy life.

  • Natural movement, that is, constant physical activity. Blue zone dwellers are known for walking, gardening, cultivating, or using as little mechanical assistance as possible.
  • Sense of purpose. The Japanese call it “Ikigai”, the Costa Ricans “Plan de vida,” refers to being aware of the reason why one lives and wakes up in the morning.
  • Down shift, also called stress management. We are all stressed from time to time, centenarians included. What these communities have in common is that they all have developed a way to manage it in their daily lives.
  • 80% rule, known to the Japanese as “Hara Hachi Bu.” It is a mantra that reminds them to eat until they are 80% full and stop before being completely satiated. According to this principle, the inhabitants of the blue zones would eat a light meal in the early evening and then not eat anything else. An intermitted fasting, so to speak.
  • Plant based diet. A plus point for vegans and bad news for carnivores around the world, but it seems that blue zone people consume few portions of meat per month and have a diet intensely focused on beans.
  • Wine. Who doesn’t love a happy hour in good company? It seems that moderate alcohol intake, perhaps shared with friends, is an important component for a healthy and long-lived life. All blue zones, except Seventh-Adventists members, consume wine regularly.
  • Belonging to a spiritual community. It has been shown that observing religious practices with constancy lengthens the life 4-14 years, though affiliation does not seem to be relevant.  
  • Right tribe, more specifically, the right inner circle. Those people you surround yourself with that support and motivate healthy behaviours. The Okinawans call them “Moais,” a group of roughly 5 friends that commits to each other for life. If you are going to live longer than the average, you better surround yourself with people who will stick around right?
  • Family first, throughout their whole life, meaning keeping parents and grandparents close by or inside the house, committing entirely to a life partner, and taking care of the next generations until they are ready to take care of you, if the time comes.
  • If all these factors converge spontaneously in the lives of people living in blue zones, does this mean that it is in our best interests to pack up and move to one of these places? Not exactly.

For those who love the place where they live or are prone to moving often, they can approach a more relaxed and natural lifestyle, which is proven to have positive effects in everyday life, as well as being more sustainable. I’m talking about Slow Living.

Born in Italy as a protest movement against the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome in the ‘80s, slow food wanted to support a diet of local foods, which respects the environment and traditions.

Today the movement “SLOW LIFE” has expanded in the rest of the world—particularly in the west—to fight the mindset of instant gratification that does not fit well with human life and the planet.

But what is slow living and how is it done?

The slow living, if analyzed closely, has many features in common with the Power 9 of the blue zones, and expands on them. That is why we can practice the principles of the blue zones without changing address.

Sense of Purpose and Down Shift can be compared to the slow living ideas of slowing down and being aware of oneself. The 80% rule and the plant diet summarize following a daily/seasonal natural rhythm: eat what the local environment offers, eat enough but not too much, go to bed early, and sleep.

Membership, Tribe and Family all advise to spend quality time with the people around you, with a little Wine too, if you want.

Stay local. Don’t chase a thrill in some distant land reachable only with expensive, long, extremely polluting planes. Your people can give you meaningful moments that will last longer and will be better for you and the environment. Prefer to spend your time in places you can reach with your strengths. Walk, bike, run and row, because other than being sustainable practices, these will help you stay fit and have a positive impact on your health.

Distance yourself from the focus-sucking, sleep-depriving, relationship-consuming technology.

All these tips fall into the spectrum of Slow Living, but there is no formal definition. The Japanese call it “Ukino,” which means “to live in the moment and to be far from the issues of modern life.” But if you ask an Italian like me, it means, “Search and enjoy what is good in your life.”

In short, there is no circumscribed formula with which to define your life, to have the certainty of living longer and better. The inhabitants of the blue zones certainly do not have that as their goal, and the idea behind a slow life is not to lengthen the lives of people.

As an Italian who was raised on a small island, I experienced slow living my whole life, even though no one I know is aware that there is a word for our lifestyle.

For me and my people, living slowly doesn’t mean taking leisure time or being stress-free. It’s about accepting nature’s limits and existing with them instead of pushing to make something happen. Food takes time to grow, a human needs a certain amount of time to walk places, and a fish will catch the hook only if you are willing to wait for it to come.

So pause sometimes, be mindful of yourself and your surroundings, and appreciate the momenta you are living. These are the most important steps to live a long, healthy life.

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