Our culture is focused on “quick-fix” diets, drugs and exercise programs despite the dismal rates of success stories or lasting results. More than 90% of individuals abandon dieting in less than seven months and gym attendance drops by more than 70% by year two. While most of us know there are no real quick fixes, many are still lured away from science and common sense by false promises and claims or social media influencer opinions disguised as fact. Epidemiological studies show Americans spend more than 2.5 times more money on their health compared to most other nations, yielding net zero gains for it.  Perhaps it is high time we reevaluate our priorities, turn away from the clickbait and get back to a sensible, foundation to health.  For this, we could learn a lot from the Blue Zones. 

The ‘Blue Zones’ are the rare places around the world where people live the longest and tend to maintain good health and function in their old age. Although the Blue Zones differ dramatically geographically and culturally from one another, the world’s five longevity hotspots share many of the same evidence-based health behaviors.  Here are a few ways to live like a centenarian!

1) Eat more beans and greens.
Beans and dark leafy greens are the cornerstone of the diet and centerpiece of the plate in the Blue Zones, but other plant foods such as fruits, nuts and grains are also eaten abundantly each day.  Animal products (fish, poultry, eggs, yogurt and cheese) are eaten moderately or a few times per week in most (not all) of the Blue Zones. Red meats and pastries are seldomly eaten, often saved for holidays or special occasions, while processed foods and sugar-sweetened drinks are basically nonexistent. With the majority of their daily meals being plant-based, the diets in these places are high in carbohydrates—a macronutrient Americans have learned to fear and often restrict.  Yet, these eating behaviors have proven to contribute significantly to longevity and reduced rates of heart disease, cancers, type 2 diabetes and dementia. 

However, it is not only what is on the plate that fosters good health. 

2) Mealtimes should be celebrations. 
People in the Blue Zones never eat alone, standing up or in the car.  Gathering around the table is viewed as a celebration and daily ritual.  It’s their time to slow down, share the day’s stories and bond with family and friends. The meals are often simple but delicious and looked at as a life pleasure-- not something needing restriction.  Since meals are never rushed, they tend to eat slowly and therefore, tend not to overeat.  Meals in these regions often begin with a prayer or a moment of expressing gratitude. Okinawans engage in the practice of hara hachi bu, which is the setting of the intention to stop eating when feeling 80% full.  These brief rituals at the start of meals help shift the mind to the present moment and the experience of the food and meal itself.

Meals are only part of the longevity equation. 

3) Sit less, move more naturally. 
People in the Blue Zones are much more active, youthful, and energetic than other places. Yet, you won’t find them in the gym, counting steps or tracking weekly minutes of exercise on an app. Instead, all age groups, including centenarians, walk and move a lot naturally. Their normal daily life activities and chores involve regular bouts of low-intensity physical activity. They move all day —or about every 20 minutes—because their environments are set up that way.  They also engage in much more NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which is everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or structured sports or exercise.

Sitting deactivates the brain and metabolism, while standing burns more calories, tones muscles, and improves focus and cognitive function. Studies indicate that sitting less than 3 hours per day can add approximately 2 quality years to your lifespan.  Considering the average lifespan is about 1000 months, adding an additional 24 months feels pretty significant. Imagine how many more months could be added with better nutrition and healthy stress management and coping skills.   

Stress is universal, but the people in the Blue Zones don’t rely on medications to quell mental anguish. They have built-in societal ways to decompress and comfortably lean on others in tough times.  

4) Don’t downplay downtime! Data shows elderly members of multigenerational households and those with deep community and family connections have been shown to live 50% longer than more socially isolated individuals. Belonging and contributing to the community are held in high regard and provide a sense of purpose that gives their lives meaning. These populations also share a ‘family and friends FIRST’ mindset and dedicate time to keep their close relationships flourishing.  For people in the Blue Zones, life has more balance and focus on social connectedness which serve as natural stress busters. In fact, given the opportunity, most would rather forego more income if it meant less downtime to enjoy loved ones and activities. They understand that taking time for rest, participating in leisure activities and maintaining strong social supports makes them more resilient against the many negative impacts of stress.

America needs to heed the lessons of the Blue Zones and centenarians so we redefine its relationship and perspectives related to wealth, work and wellness for future generations.

These materials are provided to you by Blythedale Children’s Hospital and Kohl’s
Eat Well, Be Well Nutrition Outreach Program.
For more tips and information, please visit Eat Well, Be Well.

Kohl's Eat Well, Be Well Program

Blythedale Children's Hospital, through the generosity of Kohl’s Department Stores, is proud to offer Blythedale and Kohl's Eat Well, Be Well, an innovative outreach program designed to bring health and nutrition education to schools throughout Westchester and Putnam counties. Through this program, Blythedale staff members teach healthy eating habits to children by providing curricula, training and educational tools to school districts throughout the area. The program provides general nutrition guidelines to students, parents and school faculty. Blythedale Children's Hospital offers experts in nutrition and health-education to speak with local parenting groups, PTAs and school personnel.

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