In the ongoing search for health and longevity, researchers have looked to parts of the world where people live the longest—the “blue zones,” which include Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Icaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. In these places people tend to live into their 90s or 100s pretty regularly. So researchers have studied their habits, and have taken away what seem to be the most effective lifestyle factors. And, as they should, they match up extremely well with what other types of scientific study have found about cellular health and longevity.
Writing in the Conversation, Rafael Puyol, Director of the Observatory of Demography and Generational Diversity at IE Business School in Italy, says that there are nine habits that people of the blue zone habitually engage in. And you can actually whittle these down even further.
First, here are the big nine:
- Engaging in regular exercise. These sub-populations are all extremely active
- Eating a plant-based diet. E.g., the Mediterranean diet or traditional Asian diet
- Drinking alcohol moderately. This matches what researchers have discovered about the effects of light-moderate alcohol intake and disease risk
- “Hara hachi bu,” a Confucian concept, which suggests we should eat only until we hit 80% of our fullness capacity
- Punctuating our days with a stress-reducing activity. Across the blue zones, this means different things: “taking a nap in Mediterranean societies, praying in the case of Adventists, the tea ceremony of women in Okinawa,” writes Puyol
- Having a reason larger than oneself to get up in the morning — the Japanese word that conveys this idea is “Ikigai”
- Being a part of social groups that contribute to one’s healthy habits
- Engaging in religious communities with common religious practices
- Maintaining strong relationships with family members
You can probably see the punchline coming. These nine habits can actually be boiled down to just two: Keep a healthy body and keep a healthy mental life—in other words, a good lifestyle and “good practices,” as Puyol says. He writes that the lifestyle portion includes the first few points above, and “implies regular intensity exercise, including routines to ‘break’ from daily stress, and including mainly plant-based products in our diets, eating without filling up and not drinking excessively.”
The other, more cerebral tenet is all about devoting time to your mental, social, spiritual, and communal health. “[F]amily, religious communities, social groups, and so on – all of which must have their own ‘ikigai,’ that is, their own ‘reason to live.’ There is a personal ‘ikigai,’ but there is also a collective ‘ikigai’ that sets the goals for each community as well as the challenges to overcome in order to achieve them.”
The pursuit of health may not always be straightforward, but it’s a lot simpler than we sometimes think, given the bombardment of “new” health tips and tricks we get. It really just boils down to some simple habits, a surprising number of which are behavioral/psychological. You don’t have to be perfect, but doing what you can, whenever you can, may make a difference in the long-run.