Want to Live Happily Ever After? Try the Blue Zone Way

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What Are Blue Zones and How are they happily outliving us?

I came across the concept of Blue Zones when I was studying to be a health coach. These pockets of hope and happiness intrigued me, especially given the hectic, stress ridden, food-on-the-go kinda world we live in.  

Let’s start with the definition of a blue zone: ‘Regions of the world thought to have a higher than usual number of people who live much longer than average, identified by Gianni Pes, Michel Poulain and Dan Buettner.’ (We refer to people who live to hundred or over as Centenarians).

I’d like to quickly share what the Danish Twin Study discovered – only about 20% of how long the average person lives is dictated by our genes; whereas the other 80% is dictated by our lifestyle. And it was this fact that led Dan Buettner to investigate what specific lifestyle and environmental factors supported longevity.

Five “Blue zones” have been posited: Okinawa (Japan); Sardinia (Italy); Nicoya (Costa Rica); Icaria (Greece); and Loma Linda (CaliforniaUSA). The intriguing part lies in why and how these people out live most of us.

Personally, it’s not about how long I live, but rather the quality of my life Every.Single.Day- my health span over life span. I don’t care to live to 100 but I want to be disease free, independent and happy for as long as I do live. This journey starts TODAY, not when I’m 50, or my body starts showing signs of depletion. As I did my own research on what kept these communities thriving, I realised while food plays a crucial role, it is but one of many contributors. Their community itself was one of the strongest pillars to their health and happiness.

Much research across the 5 blue zones helped uncover the common denominators, and the teams narrowed it down to 9 distinct attributes:

  1. Move naturally: There are no gyms or planned exercise schedules; exercise is built into their daily lifestyles in the way of gardening, building or fixing things, nature trails etc. It’s about doing what they enjoy.
  2. Purpose: Most of us live our lives in 2 phases – professional phase and retirement. But these communities live by a purpose – ikigai (when translated it means a sense of purpose/a reason for living).
  3. Downshift: Everyone experience stress. But these communities have a dedicated daily system to combat stress; from napping to happy hour. What is key here is the consistency of all their daily rituals.
  4. The 80% rule: “Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawans’ reminder that one should stop eating once they are 80% full. It is believed that the 20% “gap” between satisfying one’s hunger and not being completely full could explain the difference between weight loss/maintenance and weight gain. They tend to eat their biggest meal in the late afternoon or early evening, and nothing after.
  5. Plant-based diets: These communities focus on fresh plant-based foods. Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat (mostly pork) is eaten on average only five times a month.
  6. Alcohol: Contrary to what we may think, Blue Zone communities drink regularly (apart from one). It’s a part of their lifestyle. They drink with friends, family, and accompanied by food. Don’t take this out of context though! It is important to remember that this works only in conjunction with every other aspect discussed here.
  7. Belonging: The sense of belonging to a group or community is a key aspect to the health and wellbeing of the participants in these communities. Research shows that people who attend faith-based services once a week can expect to live between 4 to 14 years longer than those who don’t.
  8. Loved ones first: Family plays a major role in these centenarian communities. It’s common to live close to aging parents and grandparents so younger ones can look after their aging family. Centenarians committed to a life partner is also shown to increase life expectancy by up to 3 years.
  9. Finding the right tribe: This is a key aspect that contributes to their longevity. Your social circle tends to impact your behaviour. For example, the Okinawans created groups known as “moais” which consist of five friends who commit to each other for their entire lives

None of these contributors seemed to be very shocking or revolutionary, in fact, they all made practical sense. Then why is it that most of us struggle to live long healthy lives? Is it the stress? The accessibility of junk food vs. nutritious food, or even the cost of being healthy? Or is it the fact that we live in a more isolated environment, where the biggest high comes from our bank balance?

I believe it’s a combination of all the above teamed with a lack of awareness about what truly contributes to good health. While eating all the vegetables and fruits possible will keep our body well, what about our mental and emotional well-being? The pandemic hasn’t been kind. Each of us know people, if not ourselves, who are struggling to find happiness in the aftermath (and in general too). I don’t mean happiness as some far away state, but rather in the small routine activities. Or even just the motivation to wake up every morning and chase our ‘ikigai’.

Speaking of the pandemic, most of us have been forced to stay indoors for months on end, just escaping to run basic errands. We have lost (if ever had) the connect with nature; an integral part of who we are. There are studies highlighting the impact of nature on our happiness, immunity, and quality of sleep. A vital part about Blue Zones is the time they spend in nature- not necessarily consciously connecting with it, but by way of just being surrounded by it through various daily activities. While this isn’t always easy for us to incorporate, I’m sure we all have access to a park or nature walk nearby- let’s use it more!

To be able to thrive everyday shouldn’t only be for the ‘lucky few’. It should be what we all demand for ourselves. Maybe it’s just as simple as incorporating that one fun thing as a daily ritual – it could be a walk or watching Netflix mindlessly. Maybe for some it’s getting professional help in the form of therapy…whatever it is for you, make sure you are committed to your happiness and not merely surviving each day.

While it’s tempting to join the daily 5pm happy hour, we need to remain cognizant that our lives don’t mimic the blue zones’; we are dealing with daily stresses, crazy work hours, juggling multiple roles and probably not meeting our ‘tribe’ enough. Let’s first try to adopt and imbibe the more applicable aspects of their lives, before the convenient ones. Ensure you get some movement everyday (notice I’m not saying exercise so it’s less clinical sounding). It could be the walk to your friend’s place, or fixing something at home on your own; whatever it takes to keep you active and constructively engaged.

It is assumed that health coaches like myself only focus on food and weight loss; but that is far from the whole picture. We want to see happier and, therefore, healthier people. I strive to empower my clients to understand how the body works, how to balance foods, how to eat to fuel the mind and the body. We delve into one’s life holistically and work together to devise strategies to raise an individual’s life state.

Happiness is a journey – let’s prioritise it for ourselves. We can’t pour from an empty cup!