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May 2, 2016

The Blue Zones: Are You In One?

blue zonesIf you hear of people being in Blue Zones you might think they have depression, but you would be wrong. A Blue Zone is not a mood. It is a place. A special place. In fact, there are only five such places currently known. Blue Zones are unique places where people tend to live longer than 90 years and even more than 100 years old.  And they are:

  • Sardinia (Italian island)
  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica
  • Ikaria (Greek Island)
  • Loma Linda, California

We hear of athletes being in the zone – that rare intersection of peak performance, focused concentration, energy, and exhilaration. Blue Zone are similar to such athletic zones. Blue Zones are places where individuals live long, productive, meaningful, energetic lives. Is there a secret to these Blue Zones?

What is the Secret of Blue Zones?

We mentioned Blue Zones in our article, Healthy Living in Costa RicaBlue Zones are sometimes referred to as longevity hotspots. Blue Zones have been studied by scientists and written about in Dan Buettner’s book, The Blue Zones. 

What is the secret of these longevity hotspots? Is it modern medicine and technology? Is it nutritional supplements? Is it genes? That is what Mr. Buettner and others have been trying to answer. In a nutshell, the secret, if you can call it that, is LIFESTYLE. Not really a secret. No, it is not anything you can package in a bottle. It is not a short cut to good health, either. The success of Blue Zones requires effort.

Members of Blue Zones share common traits. These traits include the following:

  • emphasis on family and social relationships
  • plant-based diet with mild consumption of meat
  • daily physical activity
  • successful management of stress
  • incorporation of a spiritual or religious component

Relationships

Relationships are paramount in Blue Zones. Blue Zone members have both strong family and social relationships. They are active social participants. They are not bystanders in the community, or in life. The connection between longevity and social relationships has been noted and reported in other populations as well. We discussed this in our article, Living Past 110 Years Old: What’s The Secret?  Read about the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania which was settled by Italian immigrants from Roseto, Italy in this article written by Malcom Gladwell, an excerpt from his book, Outliers. The people of Roseto, Pennsylvania had poor health habits but little heart disease. But, they had very strong family and social connections. And, that appears to be the difference maker.

When we feel connected, we feel wanted, and we when we feel wanted our outlook on life improves. We become more motivated. We become more confident. We come to know ourselves better. We develop a sense of purpose. And, we are at more at peace. Peace is the opposite of stress.

Having a network of family and friends helps to dissipate and cope with stress when we go through tough times. Stress is a killer figuratively and literally. Chronic stress shortens telomere length taking off 11 years of lifespan. That is more than smoking and obesity.

Purpose overcomes less than ideal health habits as well. I know plenty of patients (many small business owners) who have health issues but running a business and a sense of obligation to their employees keeps them going longer and stronger than might otherwise would have been expected. And, we all know someone with a terminal illness who was able to stay alive just long enough to see some significant event come to pass. Purpose is powerful ingredient to good health and longer longevity.

Plant-based Diet

A plant-based diet is a low glycemic diet – the kind that we advocate. You will not go wrong if fruits and vegetables are your only sources of carbohydrates, but some starchy carbs are consumed by some Blue Zone inhabitants.

And, some meat is also eaten by Blue Zone inhabitants. Fish and poultry are healthy. Most evidence suggests limiting (not completely avoid) red meats even if they are lean, though. But, in Blue Zones fruits and vegetables are emphasized. How much meat you should eat depends on what you do. It would be very challenging for a football player, body builder,  and other competitive athletes (outside endurance athletes) to get by with a pure vegan diet because of the challenges in getting in enough protein from a vegan diet.

When you are tempted to grab some snack food, instead eat a piece of fruit, or a serving of some veggie, or some other healthy snack.

Daily Physical Activity

Physical activity is naturally incorporated into the daily lives of inhabitants of Blue Zones. They work with their hands. They plant some of their own food. They walk to market. They walk almost everywhere. They live a slower pace life yet are paradoxically more physically active than fast-paced Americans. Those of us not living in Blue Zones have to work at being active. So much of our day is sedentary. I’m not exactly running as I write this.

One does not have to go to the gym everyday to be active, though. In fact, our non-exercise physical activity (all the calories we burn being active outside formal exercise) may be a more important determinant of health than the amount of exercise we do. Some studies show it is hard to exercise and undo the harm that comes from four hours of sitting everyday. So to some degree it is not how much you exercise, but how much you do not sit that is important. If you are not an exerciser then just stay active. Move around. Change position. Walk when you can. Stand rather than sit. Keep on keeping on. Just avoid sitting as much as you can.

Stress and Spirituality

Inhabitants of Blue Zones tend to have a strong spiritual side. Given the geography of the five Blue Zones it is likely they each population has differing spiritual beliefs. But, having a faith probably leads to similar health outcomes. Anything that reduces stress can help you live longer and healthier. Being religious or spiritual is one way to reduce stress. Having faith is a way to find comfort in a world that many times makes little sense. It is a way to put life in perspective. Being religious tends to get us looking beyond ourselves and focusing on the needs of others. That is healthy for both. It’s been said by many in many ways that one of the best ways to help yourself is to help someone else. Religion encourages that. Having a relationship with God is a way of expanding your family and having another friend by your side. And, a belief in life after death makes it much easier to cope with practically everything we confront and must endure.

Create Your Own Blue Zone

You don’t have live in a Blue Zone to improve your health. Work on developing more and deeper relationships. Eat clean focusing on more fruits and vegetables and avoid snack foods. Find ways to be more active throughout the entire day, not just during the 30 to 60 minutes a day you exercise. Recognize when you are stressed and learn and develop ways to manage it. Start looking beyond yourself. Be thankful. Be grateful. Be in amazement with the world around you. It is a miracle. And, so are you. Know the Creator of all of it.

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Dr. Joe Jacko


Dr. Joe is board certified in internal medicine and sports medicine with additional training in hormone replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. He has trained or practiced at leading institutions including the Hughston Clinic, Cooper Clinic, Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas, and Cenegenics. He currently practices in Columbus, Ohio. Read more about Dr. Joe Jacko

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