Dr. Caroline Leaf – Life expectancy and living well seems to be on everyone’s minds these days, especially with the current pandemic, but did you know that around 85% of our longevity is based on our lifestyle choices and environment? In this week’s blog and podcast, I spoke with NYT Bestselling author, explorer, National Geographic Fellow, award-winning journalist and producer Dan Buettner about the world’s healthiest and longest living communities (known as the blue zones), the power of purpose, how healthy eating is affordable and how you too can live to be a 100!
As I have said many times before, our mental and physical health are intricately connected. By putting ourselves in an environment that encourages us to live well, we can improve our overall quality of life and longevity. This does not mean that we spend every moment of our day trying to deliberately change our behavior. The blue zones are not about behavior modification; they are about living each day to the fullest. Health ensues when we live our lives well—longevity is based on our environment and how it encourages us to live better, making the healthiest decisions the easiest decisions.
Take food, for instance. Say you want to eat better, but around 90% of the 220 food decisions you make a day are unconscious. It is almost impossible to pay attention to all these choices for 14 hours, but if you make changes to your environment, then eating well becomes a lot easier! Rather than trying to remember to do everything, it is better to find people and places that have the healthy eating qualities you want to develop.
The blue zones are all about creating environments that make the healthiest choices the easiest choices. You can do this by focusing on several common denominators of longevity, which Dan describes in detail in his book The Blue Zones:
- Exercise: As I spoke about in a recent blog and podcast (episode #139), movement essential when it comes to our mental and physical health. In the blue zones, people move on average every 20 minutes; they are constantly walking, gardening, getting out, and doing things by hand. They live and work in walkable communities, making movement and exercise an unconscious part of their every day. This way of life is a lot easier than forcing yourself to go to gym every day, so think of ways you can incorporate movement into your day, whether that means dancing from room to room in your house, walking to the local grocery store or taking public transportation.
- Eating a peasant diet: People in the blue zones have a predominately plant-based diet, with lots of fresh fruits and veggies, nuts, tubers, beans, and whole grains. This diet is actually affordable; healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive! Yes, it does take more time to cook these foods at home, but doing so can add 8 years to your life expectancy, which adds 2 extra days every day to your life, so you really don’t have time not to cook real, whole foods!
- Purpose: As Dan notes, purpose is a blockbuster drug. In the blue zones, purpose has two main aspects: passion and This sense of purpose doesn’t stop when people age; there is no such thing as retirement, and both the wisdom of older generations and the vitality of the young are celebrated. There is an overarching expectation that your purpose is helping the community, adding to the knowledge base, keeping people of all ages engaged and helping the survivability of younger generations.
- Community: Loneliness damages our mental and physical health, as I discussed in detail in a recent blog. In fact, according to research, loneliness can reduce our life expectancy by around 8 years! In the blue zones, there is no time to be lonely: community infuses every aspect of people’s lives, from family gatherings, to intimate friendship circles and spiritual celebrations. They are always bumping into people they know!
- Downshifting: In the modern world, we are always on the go. We have “hurry sickness”, which constantly keeps us stuck in a flight/fight stress response, resulting in an inflammatory response in the brain and body that impacts our overall health and longevity. In the blue zones, on the other hand, sacred daily rituals are incredibly important, forcing people to slow down and embrace the unhurried side of life, such as ancestor veneration for a few minutes a day, naps, prayers, and social time/happy hour with family and friends. In the blue zones, they don’t let stress run their life, so find ways you can downshift every day and watch your stress decrease and your health improve.
It is important to remember that there is no one thing that will make you live longer. Longevity is based on how you live your life every single day. It is about a mutually supportive environment that helps you do the right things for long enough. This is both a gift and responsibility: we all need to think of ways we can make the healthiest choice the easiest choice for us and the people in our community!