A trip to the library changed Luann Alemao’s life—and the small city of Cedar Falls, Iowa—forever. While browsing the new-book shelf a few years ago, Alemao found The Blue Zones (National Geographic, 2012) by Dan Buettner, a New York Times best seller showcasing five locations in the world with the highest percentage of people living well into their 100s.
Alemao, a former Family and Consumer Sciences educator, remembers feeling more than a little amazed. “I thought, wow, this is everything I used to teach, like food and nutrition, marriage and family and consumer education, plus all the evidence and research to support it. I couldn’t believe that it was all here, all condensed into one book.”
With Alemao’s help, Cedar Falls eventually became a certified Blue Zones Project community, and that made it an even more desirable place to live, she says. “It’s more bikeable and walkable, we have healthier schools and safer workplaces, and there’s a high level of volunteerism. Volunteering gives people purpose and a reason to get up in the morning. And people with purpose live longer—that’s one of the Power 9.”
The Power 9 are the nine lifestyle principles, as outlined in The Blue Zones, that Buettner and his team documented during extensive research trips to the world’s five blue zones—Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, California; Okinawa, Japan and Icaria, Greece. These principles, he explains, are common elements of the lifestyle and diet habits and overall outlook the centenarians share in each location he visited. They’re a recipe for longevity, he says. “But it’s an à la carte menu; you don’t have to do all of them.”
Here’s how you can incorporate these proven principles in your own life and home—or even your community.
1. Move naturally
Be active without having to think about it.
Staying active doesn’t necessarily mean just going to the gym a few times per week. It means making low-intensity physical activity a daily part of life, and little changes make a big difference. “One common denominator I noticed right away in the five Blue Zones is that they all have fairly hilly terrain,” Buettner explains. “So walking these hills is part of their everyday lives, and it’s serious physical activity.” The point is to keep moving and to make sure you weave aerobic, balance and muscle-strengthening activities into your daily routine, whether you’re at work or play.
• Inconvenience yourself. Get rid of handy helpers like the TV remote, the snowblower, the power lawn mower and the automatic car wash, and do things the old-fashioned way.
• Plant a garden. It’s a full-range-of-motion activity, plus it also reduces stress and produces fresh, healthy vegetables.
• To get more activity at work, pace during phone calls, walk to a colleague’s office rather than emailing them and conduct meetings during walks.
2. Hara Hachi Bu
Painlessly cut calories by 20 percent.
The Confucian-inspired adage “hara hachi bu” is a reminder to stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full. This means you eat until you no longer feel hungry, but before you’re completely stuffed. When you cut calories, you lose weight, and shedding even 10 percent of your body weight can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, which reduces your heart disease risk. Cutting calories, Buettner says, may also reduce cellular damage from free radicals. But diets are hard to stick to, so the secret—besides choosing healthier, whole foods—is to learn how to consume less at each meal.
• Don’t serve meals family-style, with heaping plates and bowls of food on the dining table for everyone to help themselves. You’ll all consume about 14 percent less if you dish out everything at the counter and put the rest away.
• You can trick your mind and stomach by making food look bigger than it is; for example, cut back on the cheese and meat in a sandwich and load it up with lettuce, onions, tomatoes and other veggies.
• Find smaller plates and bowls to serve food in; the bigger the dish, the more we fill it (and then think we have to eat it all).
• Focus on your food, not the TV. Eat more slowly to give your body time to recognize the signs that you’re no longer feeling hungry.
3. Plant Slant
Avoid meat and processed foods.
“Another common denominator of centenarians in the world’s five Blue Zones is that they’re all cut off from food culture influences,” Buettner says, so they’ve never really had the chance to eat processed foods or salty snacks. And they rarely eat meat, either because they’ve made a choice to avoid it or because they don’t have access to it. Buettner’s research showed that the centenarians’ longevity diets were based on beans, whole grains and vegetables (usually grown in their own gardens). One of the keys, he says, is to find a balance—everything in moderation.
• Eat vegetables daily, aiming for four to six servings (2 to 6 cups).
• Limit meat portions to no larger than the size of a deck of cards.
• Eat nuts, but watch the portion size; a 1-ounce serving can be 150–200 calories.
4. Grapes of Life
Drink red wine (in moderation).
A drink or two a day appears to reduce stress and the effects of chronic inflammation, Buettner says, but there are risks to drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, such as a possible increase in breast cancer risk, damage to the brain, liver and other organs, and a higher risk of accidents. Buettner found that for those who have a healthy relationship with alcohol, a glass of red wine per day offers numerous health benefits, especially if it’s red wine, which contains polyphenols that are shown to combat arteriosclerosis.
• Choose a high-quality, dark-red wine (although one drink per day of beer or spirits may also offer some benefits).
• When you have a glass of wine with a meal, it makes the meal seem like a special occasion, which helps you eat more slowly (lesson 2).
• When you have a glass of wine with friends, it also helps with lessons 6 and 9.
• According to the World Cocoa Foundation, 1.75 ounces of dark chocolate (at least 71 percent cacao) has the same amount of beneficial polyphenols as 6.5 ounces of Tannat wine, a red variety originally from the Basque region (on the France–Spain border).
5. Find Purpose Now
Take time to see the big picture.
Buettner’s research showed that many centenarians credit their longevity to having a sense of purpose or a defined goal—“why I wake up in the morning.” This sense of purpose can be for any number of reasons, like having a family you often spend time with, a job you enjoy, a hobby you can’t get enough of or a fulfilling mission, like volunteering. Having a sense of purpose reduces stress, keeps the brain sharp and can decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and stroke.
• If you’re not sure what your life’s purpose is, try writing down a list of things you’re especially passionate about, and see what picture emerges.
• Tell your friends and family what you feel your life’s goals are; saying them aloud cements them in your mind, and your network provides support you need.
Take time to relieve stress.
In Buettner’s book, he cites a theory by Italian endocrinologist Dr. Claudio Franceschi, who maintains that stress causes inflammation and that “the negative effects of inflammation build up to create conditions in the body that may promote age-related diseases.” Slowing down life’s pace, Buettner says, not only keeps inflammation down but also “ties together so many of the other lessons—eating right, appreciating friends, finding time for spirituality, making family a priority and creating things that bring purpose.”
• Unplug yourself. Reduce the amount of time you spend watching TV or surfing the Internet.
• Try meditation. Start with 10 minutes a day, and try to work up to 30.
• Practice yoga. According to the American Yoga Association, “yoga helps you to access an inner strength that allows you to face the sometimes-overwhelming fears, frustrations and challenges of everyday life.”
• Experts at the National Institutes of Health also suggest getting the right amount of sleep (not too little or too much), eating right and learning to say “no” or asking others for help when you feel overwhelmed.
Participate in a spiritual community.
“The simple act of worship is one of those subtly powerful habits that seems to improve your chances of having more good years,” Buettner says. “It doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu.” This lesson integrates with other lessons, he explains, because people who belong to a spiritual community are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, have a positive sense of well-being and are able to “relinquish the stresses of everyday life to a higher power.” Sitting quietly through a religious service, he says, is also a form of meditation, which helps to relieve stress.
• If you don’t already belong to a religious community, Buettner suggests trying it just once a week for eight weeks. If you’re not sure where to go, ask friends and family to share their positive experiences.
• If you’re already a member of a religious community, Buettner advises becoming even more involved, like volunteering or joining the choir.
8. Loved Ones First
Make family a priority.
In the five Blue Zones, centenarians are completely devoted to their families. In return, their children and grandchildren have a strong familial duty to take care of their elders as they age. “Studies have shown that elders who live with their children are less susceptible to disease, eat healthier diets, have lower levels of stress and have a much lower incidence of serious accidents,” says Buettner.
• Consider how your home contributes to, or detracts from, family time. If you live in a large house, it might be more difficult for family members to spend time together, so establish an area where everyone can gather at least once per day.
• Rituals and traditions are important, especially for children. If you can’t share a meal as a family once a day, for example, choose one night per week when everyone can be there for dinner, and make it a priority. Have everyone help with meal prep and serving. Other possibilities include going out for brunch after church, getting ice cream after Saturday soccer practice or watching movies on Friday night.
• Unplug together as a family every once in a while. Designate electronics-free zones or times to encourage conversations.
9. Right Tribe
Surround yourself with those who share your values.
“This is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do to change your lifestyle for the better,” Buettner says. When you’re trying to make positive changes in your life, it helps immensely if you have a support network around you, ideally composed of friends and family who are making the same types of changes.
• Establish regular times to meet up with members of your inner circle. Meet for coffee, go for a walk or talk on the phone.
• “Be likable,” Buettner advises. People who are fun to be around have a stronger social network; therefore, they seem to experience less stress and live purposeful lives.