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The "Power Nine" – Lessons from the blue zones

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The four blue zones that Dan Buettner explored were the mountainous region of Sardinia, Italy, the Japanese island Okinawa, a community of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. There are more – like the Akhasian Caucasus, the island Ikaria in Greece, the Hunza valley in northern Pakistan and the Vilcabamba valley in Ecuador – but I guess you have to start somewhere. I suppose Buettner expected to find a common denominator in the lifestyles of the inhabitants of the blue zones that would spell out the secret of longevity and health, but as it turns out there is no single secret ingredient to be found in all of them. He did, however, come up with a few valuable life lessons that seemed to be common wisdom in the cultures of all four zones they studied.

Lesson one: Move naturally – be active without having to think about it. This means activity should be a part of everyday life – not an hour spent at the gym – like walking, playing, gardening or activities that are part of your daily work, ideally a combination of aerobic, balancing and muscle-strengthening activities. Keep it natural, have fun. Make dates to combine it with socializing.

Lesson two: Hara Hachi Bu – the japanese practice of eating only until your stomach is 80% full. Apparently the elders on Okinawa say this like a prayer or blessing before a meal, to remind themselves not to overeat. They don't call it that in the other blue zones of course, but in all four zones they eat a very lean diet and usually consume not more than 2,000 calories a day while being quite active. Some good advice is to fill plates at the counter and store the rest, not going back for seconds, bulking up dishes with greens and using smaller plates and bowls. Sit down. Eat slowly. Eliminate distractions. Focus on your food.

Lesson three: Plant slant – avoid meat and processed food. Most inhabitants of the blue zones had only limited access to animal protein, only the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda are vegetarians for religious reasons. Forgoing meat and dairy in favour of plant protein seems to be a ticket to better health. Limit meat to twice weekly, a serving no larger than a deck of cards. Eat four to six servings of vegetables a day. Legumes are an excellent source of plant protein, as is tofu. Eat nuts every day. Showcase fruit bowls instead of candy bowls.

Lesson four: Grapes of life – drink red wine. A glass of good quality red wine full of artery-scrubbing polyphenols seems to lower heart disease rates. Go for a dark one, not the light and fruity ones. Take it easy – a single glass for women and two for a man are healthy, more than that and the adverse effects of alcohol negate the benefits.

Lesson five: Purpose now – see the big picture. One thing all inhabitants of the different blue zones seemed to have in common was a sense of purpose up to their old age. A reason "why you wake up in the morning". Valuable tips for how to realize your purpose are: Craft a personal mission statement, consider what you are passionate about. Find a partner, or partners. Learn something new, take up a musical instrument or learn a new language.

Lesson six: Downshift – take time to relieve stress. It does not have to be a "siesta", but make time to slow down and rest. Smell the roses. Count your blessings. Find time for your spiritual side. Reduce the noise. Plan to arrive early. Meditate.

Lesson seven: Belong – participate in a spiritual community. There does not seem to exist a centenarian who does not have faith. All belong to strong religious communities. Attending religious services – even as infrequently as once a month – seems to greatly reduce risk of death. People who pay attention to their spiritual side have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, depression, stress, and suicide, and their immune systems seem to work better. If you already belong to a community, be more involved. Volunteer. If you don't belong to a particular religious faith, explore. Try to find yourself a community, in faith, spirituality, humanity or ethics.

Lesson eight: Loved ones first – make family a priority. A life full af familial duties, rituals and an emphasis on togetherness is longer and healthier. The family is the highest degree of social network, a major protection to your health and to your mental and social skills. Get closer. Establish rituals. Create a family shrine for your ancestors if you feel like it. And put family first.

Lesson nine: Right tribe – be surrounded by those who share blue zone values. Social connectedness seems to be one of the crucial factors for longevity. Connecting with the right crowd is essential, so choose wisely. Identify your inner circle. Reach out for people who share your values. Create time together, daily.

I think these are very fascinating. Nothing you couldn't come up with reading the SparkPeople articles, but it all sounds oh so reasonable. Now I want to find out what I can do to create my own personal blue zone for myself.

But that's enough food for thought for today! More in a bit.

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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Well you lost me at the whole no red meat except for twice a week but got my attention back again at the red wine daily! lol
    1977 days ago
    Oh, I love all of these lessons, thank you for summarizing them so succinctly. Many of them are things I have been aspiring to already, and some are just good reminders.

    I am half Japanese, and many Japanese philosophies resonate strongly with me. Hara hachi bu reminds me of the the Buddhist practice of Oryoki, which roughly translates to "just enough." I teach it as part of the mindful eating segment in my Cultivating Mindfulness class. Originally developed for practical reasons (everyone has their own set of bowls, so no one is stuck doing the dishes, and the risk of disease spreading is lowered in the monasteries), it turns out it's just a smart way to eat. I used to try to eat at least one meal a day oryoki-style (and I even blogged the meals for a while), but I stopped doing it because of time constraints. You can see an example of oryoki performed here by one of my teachers, Jan Chozen Bays:

    Thanks again for sharing these "lessons." It makes me even more intrigued by this book!

    1978 days ago
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