In some handful, hidden corners scattered across the globe are ‘blue zones’ where people live past the 100-year mark and live healthier than the rest of us – seemingly without any strict diets, expensive supplements or rigorous exercise routines.
Dan Buettner, a continent-trekking cyclist and storyteller, identified these regions, originally named by European demographers Michel Poulain and Gianni Pes, and introduced the term to the public in a best-selling cover story for National Geographic back in 2017.
For more than two decades, Buettner has been studying these five communities – Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece and Loma Linda, California. He claims that in these regions, “longevity ensues” because long-lived people are “simply a product of their environment.”
In his latest book and Netflix series that came out yesterday, Buettner revisits these five communities and proposes a sixth – Singapore.
People residing in these blue zones are outliving us because they have figured out what others have not, according to Buettner. But he says it took him years after that initial discovery to figure out exactly why the rest of us are getting the simple diet and exercise formula so wrong.
The homegrown, plant-based diets of the blue zone residents are likely only about half of the longevity equation. The rest is about making healthy choices the easiest ones by turning them into instinctual rituals of daily life that people don’t have to think about or use willpower to fight for.
Namely, blue zone residents move consistently through each day, live with purpose, and do it all with a little help from their friends. Another common feature of Blue Zone residents is that they get plenty of exercise, but may never need a gym. Multiple blue zones, including Nicoya, Costa Rica, as well as Ikaria in Greece, have strong cultures of regular gatherings that feature dancing as a main event. In terms of the benefits for heart health, dancing is linked to a significantly lower risk of heart disease, according to Harvard Health.
In 2009, he piloted his first “Blue Zones Project” in Albert Lea, Minnesota. For this project, the city added 10 miles of sidewalks and bike lanes for its residents, and local businesses made it easier to pick and eat healthy food. People started walking more and creating their own strolling groups that hit the streets together, collectively shedding 4 tons of weight. Smoking went down by 4% during the first five years of the program.
According to Buettner, the goal is not simply to change your habits and behaviour, but your environment.