How to Live a Long Life According to The Blue Zones
This article was updated on March 27, 2023 by Cambria Glosz, MS, RD
A “Blue Zone” is a term given to certain areas around the world where its residents experience both long lifespans — a large proportion of people live beyond age 100—and long healthspans, the years lived are also healthy. As only 20% of our longevity potential comes from genetics, that leaves 80% up to our environment, our lifestyle, and our daily habits. Even if you don’t live in a Blue Zone, there are several longevity-promoting habits you can take away from how those individuals live their lives.
From leading a purpose-driven life to a primarily plant-based diet, the centenarians in the areas spattered across the globe are doing it right when it comes to health and longevity.
Where Are the Blue Zones?
What started as a curiosity by National Geographic’s Dan Buettner about why the people of a small Italian island lived longer than the rest of us grew into a series of best-selling books and a movement to create healthier communities around the world.
The “Blue Zone” name originates from the authors of a September 2004 study, who drew concentric blue circles on areas of the map which held the largest number of centenarians and inspired Buettner to seek out the other Blue Zones.
These areas are home to the greatest number of people who live to see age 100, at 10 times the rate at which people in the United States do. There are currently five identified Blue Zone regions in which the inhabitants seem to have discovered the key factors linked to living a long life:
- The province of Ogliastra in Sardinia: This tiny island off the coast of Italy is home to the longest-lived men in the world.
- Okinawa, Japan: A set of islands off the southern end of Japan, Okinawans boast the longest-lived women worldwide.
- Loma Linda, California: The religious community of the Seventh-Day Adventists in this Southern Californian city experience lifespans a decade longer than the national average.
- Nicoya, Costa Rica: An 80-mile peninsula in Central America that spends 15% of what Americans do on healthcare, yet are twice as likely to reach age 90 than the U.S. population.
- Ikaria, Greece: Often called “the island where people forget to die,” the residents on this small Aegean island live, on average, eight years longer than Americans do, with dramatic reductions in the rates of chronic conditions and almost non-existent rates of cognitive loss.
The Blue Zone Habits that Lead to a Long Life
1. Primarily Plant-Based
While all five Blue Zones have a different cultural basis for their diets, some underlying themes run through them. Mainly, these populations eat a lot of plant-based foods and limit their meat consumption—in most cases, meat is only consumed once per week. The rest of the meals are made up of beans, nuts, whole grains and plenty of vegetables. Beans, lentils, and other legumes are not only filling sources of plant-based protein, but they also support cardiovascular health.
Speaking to the cultural differences of the Blue Zones, the Okinawans’ diet consists primarily of sweet potato, rice and tofu, while the shepherds of Sardinia enjoy plenty of goat’s cheese and sheep’s milk. The Ikarians of Greece eat more omega-3-rich fish and olive oil than the others, while the people of Nicoya consume more antioxidant-rich tropical fruit.
2. Not Overeating
The Okinawans practice the Confucian concept of “hara hachi bu,” which translates roughly to eating until you are 80% full. Other Blue Zone cultures practice fasting or caloric restriction, like the Greek Orthodox Ikarians, who fast in various ways for almost half the year.
Most of the Blue Zone regions eat their largest meals in the morning or early afternoon, leaving the evening with minimal or no eating. Time-restricted eating in this manner is the most beneficial for inducing autophagy, which is the way our bodies recycle and clear out damaged cells and toxic compounds to increase longevity.
3. Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Four out of the five Blue Zones enjoy a moderate intake of alcohol (excluding the Seventy-Day Adventists). The antioxidant-rich red wine of Sardinia is especially beneficial, and consuming it at the end of the day with friends and family is encouraged.
The Okinawans are prone to drinking sake with their “moai,” which is a social circle that each five-year-old Okinawan child is placed into; these friendship groups remain close-knit for the rest of their lives.
However, the research on alcohol’s impact on health is mixed. Some studies have shown that even light to moderate alcohol consumption is linked to increased risk of chronic conditions, indicating that perhaps the social and community aspect of drinking alcohol is more important for maintaining the health of the Blue Zone dwellers.
4. Constant Daily Movement
The people living in the Blue Zones do not exercise like Americans do, which tends to be sitting all day, followed by an hour of exercise at the gym. Instead, movement is worked into the daily lives and routines of the people in the Blue Zones, like the shepherds of Sardinia, who walk upwards of five mountainous miles per day.
Other members of Blue Zone communities are constantly out tending to their gardens, walking to their errands instead of driving, and doing physical chores throughout the day.
Constant movement throughout the day is more aligned with how our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived, while the sedentary nature of modern society is linked to an increased risk of chronic disease and mortality. A July 2015 study in the Journal of Epidemiology found that men who walked two or more hours per day had a significantly reduced risk of all-cause mortality over a 10-year follow-up period.
5. Purpose and Community
Each Blue Zone places a high value on leading a purposeful life. In Okinawa, they call it “ikigai,” while the Nicoyans use the phrase “plan de vida,” both of which mean “the reason why I wake up in the morning.” Having a clear sense of purpose is linked to an additional seven years in lifespan. Indeed a July 2009 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that Japanese men and women who practiced “ikigai” had a reduced risk of mortality after 12 years of follow-up.
Other aspects that all of the Blue Zones have in common are their sense of community. From the faith-based nature of the Seventh-Day Adventists to the “moai” groups of the Okinawans to the Sardinians’ daily 5 o’clock glass of red wine and laughter, these people know the power of community.
Also, there’s a big focus on putting family first, which leads to most households having multiple generations under one roof. All of these social and community factors contribute to living a long life in the Blue Zones.
Where You Live Impacts How Long You Live
Just as the environments of the Blue Zones are conducive to living a long and healthy life, some environmental factors can play a negative role in your health, too. A 2020 study published in Social Science & Medicine found that the three most important factors that reduced life expectancy were:
- Communities that had a greater number of fast-food restaurants
- A higher population density
- A significant number of jobs in the fields of mining, quarrying and oil or gas extraction
Not surprisingly, the study also found greater social cohesion was associated with an increase in life expectancy. No matter where you live, maintaining a strong sense of community is an essential factor in how long you live.
- Although we can’t always choose where we live, there are a number of habits you can adopt to increase your longevity and improve your health.
- These habits are modeled after the Blue Zones, which are five different areas across the globe that have the greatest number of healthy people who have reached age 100.
- The Blue Zone communities eat primarily plant-based, don’t overeat, and have periods of fasting or time-restricted eating.
- Other habits include consuming a little bit of alcohol, incorporating movement throughout the day, and maintaining a strong sense of community and social ties.