Not only do they live longer than most individuals on Earth, they also maintain their physical health and mental wellbeing for longer, with many living into their 90s without dementia or chronic disease. This means that their quality of life as well as their quantity of life is better than that of the average human. Researchers have observed the dietary habits and lifestyles of these populations to uncover the secrets behind their longevity. You might be surprised to find out that they do not take any superfood powders or supplements, nor do they perform any unconventional exercises. The grounds for their health and longevity involve a combination of environmental influences including their diet, daily routine and social interactions. Therefore, by learning from blue zone populations and adopting their characteristic behavioural and lifestyle factors we may be able to not only live longer, but also live better for longer.
The most distinct dietary factor shared by blue zone populations is their consumption of wholefoods instead of processed foods. They also avoid chemical-laden manufactured products such as cigarettes. Instead, they consume only what their local environment provides. We often forget that we are a part of nature. Humans are animals of the Earth and the Earth naturally offers all the food humans need to survive. Our bodies have evolved to recognise and digest foods in their natural forms. Processed foods high in sugar and saturated fat are inflammatory and can be chemically destructive to the human body. These foods have consistently been linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and a general reduction in longevity. Such diseases are virtually non-existent in blue zone populations. Whilst adhering to a diet completely free of artificial ingredients and pesticides is difficult in modern day society, ensuring most of your caloric intake comes from organic whole foods will give you the best chance at attaining significant life-prolonging health benefits.
The wholefoods consumed by blue zone inhabitants are largely plant-based. The majority of their caloric intake comes from fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, herbs, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. Plant-based wholefoods are repeatedly linked to good health and longevity. Plants contain fibre, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and biological molecules believed to fight cancer, reduce cholesterol and block blood clots. The chronic diet-related diseases commonly associated with modern societies are rare in blue zone populations. This is further evidence showcasing the power of plants in preventing disease and prolonging life.
Whilst many blue zone inhabitants consume meat and fish in addition to their largely plant-based diet, they do not do so on a daily basis. Animal products are consumed in moderation, with meat only being eaten a few times a month and fish, milk and eggs being eaten a few times a week. The animals used in their animal products are typically raised locally, grass-fed, pasture-raised and wild-caught. Therefore, the animal products in blue zone populations are richer in nutrients as well as being free of harmful chemicals. On the other hand, most animal products in modern societies are mass-produced in factory farms. This means that in addition to the artificial substances involved in the preserving and processing of the products, antibiotics and growth hormones are used when raising the animals. When you consume animal products, be sure to choose high-quality, organic and locally sourced products to avoid ingesting these chemical substances and to support the sustainability of the environment.
The inhabitants of blue zone populations are physically active throughout their lives. Exercise is naturally incorporated into their daily routine and although it usually comprises slow and relaxed movements such as walking, the prolonged activity keeps their muscles engaged and their circulation flowing. Exercise toughens the muscles and bones of the body, reducing the risk of injury and ensuring mobility and agility are maintained until later life. Most blue zone inhabitants remain physically active well into their 90s. While they do not use specific exercise machinery or partake in high-intensity exercise classes, physical labour and regular movement strengthens their bodies. Daily exercise is a key factor in promoting good health and longevity as it conditions the body to be physically resilient, increases the breakdown of toxins and improves the function of the immune system.
Blue zone populations achieve an average of eight or more hours of sleep per night. The inhabitants tend to wake as the sun rises and sleep after the sun sets. A consistent sleeping pattern ensures the body is well rested and ready for each day. With a lack of sleep being associated with a huge range of negative health consequences including hormone imbalance and reduced immune function, it is crucial to regulate your sleeping pattern. By establishing a sleep-wake cycle in respect to the Earth’s night-day cycle you can ensure your body rests in harmony with the natural 24-hour cycle. This will not only guarantee you are resting your body adequately but also enable you to develop a closer connection to the natural environment you live in, which can benefit your mental health and wellbeing. If you don’t manage to get a full night’s sleep, set aside some time in the day for a nap.
A notable lifestyle feature that is common in all blue zone populations is their community integration. The inhabitants live in close family units and families live together in communities. Having an identity within a community and being part of a group gives humans a sense of purpose and belonging. In blue zone communities, families and friends support each other and older generations are respected and well looked after. Maintaining long term companions and social interactions throughout life is an essential part of sustaining mental health and wellbeing.
Finally, but certainly no less importantly, the main behavioural quality shared by blue zone populations is their low-stress lifestyle. Stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol within the body, which increases blood pressure and in the long term can increase the incidence of disease. Minimising cortisol levels is a critical part of sustaining a healthy mind and body. The lack of stress in blue zone populations is likely due to the combination of a healthy diet, regular exercise, good quality sleep, positive social interactions and a supportive community. In addition, many blue zone populations have spiritual beliefs which may contribute to their sense of purpose and wellbeing.
Social support within communities enables inhabitants to help each other deal with mental stress and invoke happiness amongst each other. By promoting the release of hormones associated with health and happiness, humans achieve a sense of wellbeing which enables them to make positive decisions leading to further health and happiness in themselves and amongst others. To cultivate your happiness and promote longevity, look after your body and mind with a healthy diet, regular exercise, sleep and quality time with friends and family. Blue zone populations have taught us that enjoying life and leading a healthy lifestyle are not mutually exclusive: you cannot be healthy if you are not happy; and you cannot be happy if you are not healthy.
+ Words: Yasmin Razzaque
Yasmin Razzaque is a Biochemistry graduate with a keen interest in health and nutrition. She uses her scientific knowledge and ability to critically analyse research to write articles about healthy and sustainable eating and wellbeing.