The healthiest people in the world—if judged primarily by longevity—are not those who can lift the heaviest weights or run the fastest marathons. Nor are they populations that adhere to weight-loss diets or a bevvy of supplements. For these groups, antioxidant powders and vitamin-C tablets are the least of their worries.
Across the globe, a human life lasts just a touch over 71 years on average. But in some places people live much longer. The longest living populations in the world occupy the ‘Blue Zones,’ a term coined and popularized by Dan Buettner’s 2008 book of the same title. Buettner’s research question was simple: how do the oldest people in the world live?
Particulars of lifestyle, diet, exercise, community, and other esoteric determinants were recorded and recounted and a theme emerged. People in these areas were living for so long and aging so well because the things that perhaps you and I presume to be ‘healthy habits’ were things that were already ingrained in the lifestyle and milieu of the Blue Zones. Whether or not longevity was the intention from the start, people of these geographies have grown accustomed to an active, healthy and social lifestyle to such an extent that non-Blue Zone inhabitants such as us look on with awe and admiration.
While genetics does play a role in aging, those who live in the Blue Zones happen to live in places where it is easier and more convenient to eat vegetables, commute by walking, and cultivate a sense of belonging. The right environment can make all the difference; when the burden of decision is removed, less salubrious temptations are minimized and a healthier lifestyle results.
In other words: when eating healthy, exercising, and membership to a meaningful community is the default setting, long and healthy lives become the new standard.
Though without fad labels like ‘vegan’ or ‘keto,’ the majority of Blue Zone occupants follow a predominantly plant-based diet. For example, in Nicoya, Costa Rica, the community subsists on fruit, squash, and beans. In Loma Linda, California—the only Blue Zone in the US—a preponderance of people avoid meat. Dieting has become all but moot in these locations due to the special combination of environment and culture that is so conducive to longevity.
Evidence from Blue Zones suggests that life expectancy, as it turns out, has less to do with your gym membership and more to do with how often you move in your day-to-day activities. Especially within the subset of academia and in a place such as CUHK, sedentary jobs are nearly unavoidable. Sitting at a desk each day presents issues of heart health, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Not surprisingly, people in the Blue Zones—those who live longest—walk disproportionately more than normal populations. Natural movements such as carrying, squatting, and gardening are a basic part of everyday life because of either reduced access to or reduced desire to utilize conveniences of modernity.
For our long-lifespan counterparts, exercise is simply a consequence of existence, and demands no additional scheduling or habit development. Integrating exercise and physical activity into quotidian pursuits can be as simple as walking instead of driving, or opting to spend more time outdoors on the weekends rather than staying in. Small tweaks in routine that tilt in the opposite direction of a sedentary life can lead to higher intellectual performance and lower rates of disease—both of which are contributory components of longevity.
Within the Blue Zones, membership to some form of faith-based community pervades. Regardless of which religion or denomination, a sense of belonging and community remains inextricable from a long, well-lived life. This tells us that involvement in something greater than ourselves could unlock a deeper sense of purpose and, ultimately, compel us to squeeze more years out of our lifetimes.
The Blue Zones teach us that healthy habits work most optimally when they are built into our lifestyle not as things we must force ourselves to do but things that happen organically, as if things could not be otherwise. Stock your home with foods that make you healthier; install a standing desk to combat inactivity; join a group that imbues in you a sense of belonging.
Certain pockets of the world are aging at a rate that shames global averages. We have a record of the habits these longevity maestros practice, and can begin integrating Blue Zone secrets into our own lives.