Have you heard of Blue Zones—a community in which a high concentration of people live astonishing long and healthy lives? The new Netflix show Live to 100: The Secrets of the Blue Zones debuted earlier this year hosted by Dan Buettner, an author and longevity expert with over 20 years of experience, driven by his own curiosity of the lifestyle in Blue Zones. His book, The Blue Zones, 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest was also the topic of discussion at my most recent book club meeting. With members of my book club ranging in ages 32-84, we had an enthusiastic conversation about Blue Zones reflective of what most people want in life: healthy change, community, purpose, and good food!
But what exactly do these people do that makes them happy, witty, and fit? (Well into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s!) I know I’m not the only one captivated by the vitality of the centenarians featured. Here, I’m sharing some of the Blue Zones healthy habits I’m hoping to adopt for myself and my family.
Where Are “Blue Zones”?
First, here are the Blue Zones that Buettner traveled to and researched extensively:
- Sardinia, Italy
- Okinawa, Japan
- Loma Linda, California
- Ikaria, Greece
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
Watching and reading about each Blue Zone filled me with a desire to pack up my little family and travel to one of these beautiful places, where people spend the morning in their garden or farm, take afternoon siestas, eat home-cooked meals with family, and dance the night away with friends.
We all know that diet and exercise are important to living a longer life, but Blue Zones go beyond that. The information Buettner and his team gathered are specific steps to take from people who’ve proved the steps work, a “legitimate recipe for longevity.”
Listed in the back of Buettner’s book are nine steps for anyone to take to add quality years to their life. He suggests choosing a few of the easiest steps for you to apply, so you don’t get discouraged or quit. You can start slow and adjust your lifestyle in a way that works best for you.
Spoiler: No gym membership or diet supplements are required! (But purple potatoes and goat’s milk wouldn’t hurt.)
Seven Blue Zones Healthy Habits I’m Trying
1. Cook at Home More Often
Diet specifics were different in each Blue Zone studied, but the common thread was whole-plant-based diets. At first, the challenge of adjusting our diet to match the ones of the centenarians felt like a losing battle. I have two toddlers who would eat chicken nuggets with fries for every meal if they could. Not to mention that we are surrounded by processed foods everywhere we go, and eating organic food is substantially more expensive than eating microwave dinners.
But if the people in Nicoya can create a Blue Zone by eating a basic diet of beans, squash, and corn, “perhaps the greatest longevity diet the world has ever known,” according to Buettner’s book, then I can find a way to better limit junk food. I’m not going to throw away my daughter’s beloved waffles, instead, I’m making small, attainable changes that my family will barely notice, but will definitely appreciate in the long run.
Here is my Blue Zone-inspired nutrition plan:
- Plan six well-balanced dinners cooked at home each week (leftovers too!)
- Buy in-season produce at our farmer’s market
- Oatmeal or eggs for breakfast packed with whatever healthy options we have
- Always offer vegetables with meals
- Eat more beans, sweet potatoes, and sourdough bread
- Eat most meals at the table together (slowly!)
- Make veggies the star of the meal
- Cook less with meat and more olive oil
- Use our own home-grown vegetables and herbs
- Drink herbal tea every day
- Cook with A LOT of turmeric
2. Make Eating a Celebration
Another mealtime habit of those living in Blue Zones is to turn dinner time into a celebration: the table is set and decorated, the food is colorful, and friends and family are brought together for the fun of good food and good company, no holiday required. Friends enjoy a glass of wine together, cook together, and break bread together. Meals are not eaten in a hurry, on the go, or out of a paper bag. No one is counting calories or absorbed in guilt for having dessert; they seek balance in their diet and take time to enjoy the nutrients and togetherness that food brings.
3. Keep Family Close
Another commonality in the Blue Zones is a reverence for elders and dedication to taking care of parents and grandparents. Multi-generational families often live together and take care of each other. Grandparents help with the grandkids and household chores, and in turn, the younger generation learns from their elders, helps with finances, and nurtures a slower aging process. One of the centenarians in Ikaria had a one-word response for her secret to longevity: “grandchildren.”
According to Buettner’s book, “Elders who live with their children are less susceptible to disease, eat healthier diets, have lower levels of stress, and have much lower incidence of serious accidents.” They also have “much sharper mental and social skills.” Families in the Blue Zones are honored to take care of each other, and this fills each individual, both young and old, with a greater sense of purpose and belonging.
I found the data from the Blue Zones truly astonishing, and hope that our country will start to incentivize multi-generational living for the benefit of pooling resources and longevity. Someday soon, it is our goal to buy a house with space for my children’s grandmother, “Gammy.” We spend almost every day together anyway, and to have her just a staircase away makes so much sense for our family to function at its best. Likewise, their other grandparents live just 20 minutes away, and prioritizing these important relationships is essential for our overall health and happiness.
If your family doesn’t live close by or you aren’t close to your family, you can still draw closer connections with your chosen family.
4. Surround Yourself With the Right People
Speaking of chosen family, Blue Zones show that picking the right friends might actually add years to our life. Seriously! Choose friends who make you laugh, who are positive, who lift you up, and, ideally, who have similar, healthy goals. If you spend time with people who take care of themselves, are filled with purpose, and are excited about healthy, delicious foods—guess what? You’re more likely to follow suit.
The truth about your inner circle deeply affecting your overall health is one of the many reasons I am so excited about my book club. The women in this group are motivated, brilliant, and voracious readers. I always joke that my love language is talking about books, and to find friends who share this passion fills me with energy and gratitude to be in such fabulous company. Buettner says that frequent, meaningful conversation is the key to longevity. I believe it!
Cami Mayer, a travel writer and fellow book club member, shares my enthusiasm for modeling her lifestyle after the Blue Zones. I asked her what stood out most to her:
“I zeroed in on Dan Buettner’s advice to be determinedly social…Those are the people who will enhance our lives and our health. There’s something huge about the bonding effect of conversation in person, the happiness of laughing with others, and the impact of subtle human touch while interacting. I am all in on generously caring, helping, and loving. My new motto is: don’t hold back!”
5. Keep Moving
I already mentioned that you don’t need a gym membership to create your own personal Blue Zone. That’s because the centenarians walk everywhere, do rigorous chores, garden, shepherd sheep, ride horses, and chop their own wood. It’s no coincidence that many of these activities are outside, in the sunlight and fresh air, further reflecting the correlation between health and the outdoors. They work hard and keep their bodies moving. Even their furniture reflects an active lifestyle! Many of the people interviewed have minimal furniture and often sit on the ground, forcing them to do squats all day long.
My family is fortunate enough to live within walking distance of our local farmers market and a quaint downtown area. We walk to the market every week and do most of our shopping or eating out downtown. Walking everywhere brings me so much happiness, and now that I know I don’t have to run to reap the exercise benefits, I’m even more motivated to get my family walking every chance we have. There are also shops and restaurants in the opposite direction of our downtown, about twice as far. Thanks to the Blue Zones, I’m determined to regularly make the longer trek.
6. Find Your Purpose
No one retires in Blue Zones. The centenarians keep working, meet up with friends daily, pursue their hobbies with gusto, volunteer, and help take care of their grandchildren. No wonder they live so long! They’re too busy to die.
As a work-from-home mom who is also homeschooling my kids, my sense of purpose can sometimes feel like Groundhog Day. Cook breakfast, school time, work, play outside, do laundry, repeat. I’ve learned that I can avoid the hamster-wheel feeling by giving each activity a simple and fun goal. For example, when we went for a walk this morning our goal was to find as many different leaves as we could for a craft. Activities like this help my mental health tremendously by keeping me present and engaged with my children. I’m also pursuing my own dreams outside of motherhood, such as publishing my first children’s book. The Blue Zones is a great reminder of how crucial a clear purpose truly is for our mindset.
Ann Parr, another member of our book club and published author, also shared that finding purpose was her biggest takeaway from the Blue Zones. “At my advanced age of 80, my life focus is less clear than at any time in my life,” she said. “My children are on their life paths, my husband is deceased, and I’m living in a comfortable retirement center. What could be missing? A clear sense of focus and purpose. Being aware of my dilemma is the first step of filling the gap…This might be the most exciting time in my life! I might be headed for some new blue!”
7. Cultivate a Positive Mindset
According to Buettner, our lifespan is 80 percent dictated by our lifestyle and only 20 percent by our genes. Isn’t that amazing news?! We don’t have to be riddled with diseases, count out our daily medications every morning, or be saddled in a lonely nursing home in our 70s. It doesn’t have to be that way! We can focus more on the prevention of illnesses, rather than treatment. And even if we don’t live in a Blue Zone, what’s stopping us from making positive changes? Starting with a positive mindset that we truly can achieve a healthier and happier lifestyle. Like Buettner says, we can create our own “personal” Blue Zones! Who knows, you could inspire your family, neighbors, or entire community to turn blue. I’m on a mission to do just that.
When I feel overwhelmed with work or mundane chores, I try to ask myself, what is essential? The answer is always rooted in the core ideas of the Blue Zones: time with family and friends, a home-cooked meal, going for a walk, helping others, and appreciating my many reasons for getting out of bed each morning.
There are so many inspiring stories woven into the book and the show, and many more tips to achieve longevity. I highly recommend watching Live to 100: The Secrets of Blue Zones to see the inner peace of the people interviewed and to read the book for more detailed information. If you’ve made it this far in my article, I guarantee the Blue Zones will light a fire in you as well.
What stood out to me most about the centenarians is the youthful, humorous glow that each one radiates. They don’t appear bogged down by the world’s problems, but rather they focus on the problems within their control. Stress rolls off their shoulders, and they bask in the present moment, soaking up life’s pleasures right in front of them. Old age doesn’t appear to slow them down or affect their attitude towards life, their friends, or family. In short, a passionate love of life and everyone in it exudes from these extraordinary individuals. Buettner’s final note in the show says it best: “At the end of the day, the big takeaway is that the same things that help us live a long, healthy life are the things that make life worth living.”