9 lessons from the healthiest people in the world

In the early 1900's North America entered the industrial revolution. Meaning, a lot of people pivoted from working on the farm to working in factories. Then, in the 1950's another pivot started to shape. The knowledge economy began to take form. In other words, a lot of people went from working in factories to working in offices.

This evolution of work has brought many benefits: increased productivity, laser-like effectiveness and a surge of opportunity.

But perhaps there is a base tone we have failed to hear with this progression. Or maybe our ignorance is headstrong to this fact: Since entering the knowledge economy we are further removed from a lifestyle that is naturally healthy.

The conventional approach is to go on a diet and do a certain amount of repetitions of an exercise with hopes to produce a linear result; lower weight, reduced blood pressure, decreased girth measurements.

This is perhaps the residue of the knowledge economy. The prefrontal cortex of our brains is responsible for - amongst other things - logic, reason, and long-term goals. We've taken an ethos that's proved effective at work and applied it to our health and wellness.

But this is a form of fundamentalism that willfully denies that health and wellness are far more complex than a set of numbers and outcomes.

The limbic system of our brain is the emotional, instinctual part of our minds that include - among other things - our pleasure center. Interestingly, there are groups of people scattered across the world that still use the archaic model of good health fueled by the limbic system of the brain.

In Icaria, Greece, one in three people live into their 90's healthfully. Other longevity hot spots - called "blue zones" - include Nicoya, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California and Sardinia, Italy, where Tonino Tola, a 75-year old shepherd, still walks his donkey the 5-mile journey to tend his sheep every day on his family's mountaintop pasture.

Interestingly, being geographically far apart has influenced wide differences in daily rituals, diet, and habits. However, the general strategies that these communities share are the bedrock to living a longer, healthier life. What follows are practical takeaways to create your own personal blue zone without neglecting your modern day responsibilities.


1. Regular movement

People in each of the blue zones all have regular movement built into their daily routines. This is largely due to the fact that their work and livelihood depend on it - farming, tending the garden and hiking several miles per day to tend sheep.

Many of us have shifted from the farming life to the office life. Therefore, movement is not embedded into our daily life. This drops our daily NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). In other words, we burn less calories each day because our work environment is designed for us to sit for hours on end. Less movement over time - especially after the age of 30 - influences a steady gain of fat while natural muscle tissue begins to drop. This combination is a recipe for impaired health.


Execution Strategy:

The first solution is to add in workouts for movement. However, this isn't always the most practical thing for some people. Whether it's due to busyness or lack of interest, adding in workouts to one's day can feel burdensome.

Embedding subtle ways to be more active is the next best solution. Carving out the first 15 minutes of your lunch break to take a walk while listening to an audiobook. Sprinkling in several desk-bound yoga sessions in the margins of the day. Inquiring with your employer to see if a stand-up desk is feasible - research shows that those who switched from seated positions to a standing desk burned up to 700 additional calories each day. 

Lastly, the association of movement is critical. Meaning, your state entering the movement session will dictate your enthusiasm on the next session. This is why pre-workout drinks in the fitness world are so popular. The stimulant influences the experience of exercise; a little caffeine before exercise will excite you as you enter the session. Over a few weeks, this association will be hardwired into your brain. And then, your cup of coffee or green tea will be the trigger that sends you into your exercise routine automatically.

2. Find your "why"

The Okinawans call it "ikigai." The Nicoyans call it "plan de vida." There isn't a direct translation in English, however, it's loosely unrobed as "why I wake up in the morning." Buettner suggests that this posture towards life acts as a buffer against stress and helps reduce their chances of Alzheimer's, arthritis and stroke. Essentially, they fiercely seek reasons to stay active.

When health and fitness is treated as a mechanical check-up - like an auto technician performing a tune up on a vehicle - we become disconnected from any compelling reason to invest in our own self-care. This disconnect points us toward negligence. A rigid attitude toward health grounded in a perspective of one is fascist: One marches along life without taking into account his or her impact on others.

If the gaze is pointed outward we begin to find compelling reasons to take care of ourselves. Like the Okinawans and Nicoyans, we too can find our own reasons why we wake up the morning. By associating our personal "ikigai" to our own self-care the motivation pivots from selfish to selfless. Eating well and moving regularly now become tools that allows us to love, serve and perform at a much higher level in the areas we deem important in our lives.


Execution strategy:

Identify areas in your life that could be improved if you invested in your own self-care more often. Be sure to include aspects and people who will benefit - not just your own welfare. By keeping these at the forefront, you're more likely to feel compelled instead of dragooned to regularly deposit into your health and fitness.


3. Hara Hachi Bu: Eat until 80% full

During his research, Buettner did not encounter one overweight centenarian in any of the regions. A pivotal factor to this finding? Hara Hachi Bu.

Hara Hachi Bu is a Confucian mantra spoken before each meal in Okinawa. This short statement is a reminder for people to stop eating when they are 80 percent full. This practice has held its power up until today considering that Japan has one fo the lowest obesity rates in the world.

In the West, we've adopted a practice that we eat until we're full. Okinawans stop as soon as they are not hungry. This subtle difference over a long period of time adds up. The result is a regular consumption over our calorie set point week after week, year after year. It's why nobody ever wakes up the next day 27 pounds overweight - it's a gradual outcome.


Execution Strategy:

Eat slower. By intentionally pumping the brakes at meal time, we can become aware of our satiation signals. It takes about 15-20 minutes for our brains to recognize that we are no longer hungry. Any faster than this, and we are vulnerable to overeat before our brains can tell us we've had enough.

Eating with your off hand, putting the fork down between each bite and eliminating distraction (phone, TV, tablets) are all practical ways to slow down while you eat. Also, asking yourself, "Am I satisfied?" as you work through your meal can bring a high-end awareness to satiation levels too.


4. Eat more plant-based foods

Dr. Buettner estimated that plant-based foods make up 95 percent of the diet of those dwelling in the blue zones. Their posture isn't vegetarian or vegan. Instead, it's due tot the fact that plant-based foods are a lot more accessible and less expensive. Animal protein is treated as a luxury. While it may not be necessary to give up animal protein entirely for great health and longevity, including more plant-based foods into your diet certainly is a positive pivot.


Execution strategy:

Don't take away anything in your daily diet. Rather, add-in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. One simple way to do this is by having one green super shake each day. Click here to get the formula to make your own.


5. Enjoy wine sensibly if you choose

Other than Adventists, each blue zone region enjoys wine in moderation. Buettner explains how this moderation - 1 or 2 glasses - has been associated with heart health. Additional benefits from wine consumption can be accredited to its high amounts of antioxidants, particularly polyphenols and resveratrol.


Execution strategy:

Don't abuse this strategy. People in the blue zone region don't polish off several bottles of wine a night. Instead, wine is beverage they enjoy with food - a savory experience to enjoy. It's not intended to intoxicate.

Also, alcohol of any kind contains calories. If your aim is fat loss, be sure to factor in the energy intake from wine.


6. Find your tribe

The Okinawans have moais - groups of people who stick together their whole lives. Originally moais were created for financial stability, but have lasted to provide social network foundation for the Okinawans.

Social connectedness is not only effective for the Okinawans. Professor Lisa Berkman of Harvard University found over a nine-year study that those with the most social connectedness lived longer.

Proximity unfortunately, can influence to think that we are connected to other people. Co-workers and neighbors are good examples at how proximity offers convenience. However, this doesn't guarantee that you feel part of a tribe or socially connected.


Execution Strategy:

Like the moais groups in Okinawa, it's important to get plugged with a few people who you can share meals with, be vulnerable with and create memories with. Meaning, these connections cannot be acquaintances. They must be deep-rooted friendships. Cultivating this is difficult and time-consuming. But, it's worth it. Evaluate your interests and hobbies and get plugged into a tribe.


7. The power of faith-based community

In his book, Buettner notes that the overwhelming majority of people in the blue zones belong to some sort of faith-based community.

Dr. Gary Fraser reported that those who are part of some faith-based community were more likely to take on healthful behaviors. They were more physically active, less likely to smoke or drink alcohol in excess. These people also practiced some type of prayer, meditation or quiet time in their daily lives which have a direct impact on their emotional well-being and stress levels.


Execution strategy:

This aspect is incredibly nuanced and personal. It will take some due diligence on your part to learn about different traditions and beliefs. Explore. Ask a lot of questions. Give yourself the allowance to learn without expectation or judgment. Beyond doing your own research, at some point, you'll just have to go and experience the faith-based community. Pick a few weekends and attend services.


8. Love your family

Oddly, it seems like it's easier to go out and save the world than it is to stay at home and love your family. Interestingly, in the blue zone regions, it's the exact opposite. Each community places a high value on loving their families.

The centenarians typically married, had children and built their lives around that core unit. A certain togetherness was woven through each of these families. Tolino Tola, the man I mentioned in the opening says, "Everything I do is for my family."


Execution strategy:

Creating rituals is a practical way to spend time together as a family. Giving your time, after all, is the most valuable way you can show somebody that you love them. Saturday morning pancakes. Date nights on Thursdays. Walking your kids to school each morning. Drawing a bath for your loved one every Friday evening after a long week. Folding in these small rituals add up over the years, and thus, create a certain togetherness that improves well-being.


9. Downshifting

In each blue zone, there is a ritual for downshifting. It's almost like a shut-down habit to return to a life cadence that can be sustained.

Sardinian's flood the streets at 5 p.m., while the Nicoyans break every afternoon to rest and socialize. The Okinawans gather casually before supper. From Friday to sunset Saturday, Adventists create a "sanctuary in time" during which they focus on God, their families, and nature. They don't work. Kids don't do organized sports or homework.

While the tactics differ, the through-line is this: They all have scheduled pockets of their life when it's time to slow down.


Execution strategy:

Embed some slow time into your days and weeks. This is the entire practice - scheduling it. We run so fast these days, that we forget that we aren't robots. We think we can charge ahead without recharging our minds and souls. Start with something manageable like a 10-minute meditation each day. Headspace.com is meditation made simple - it's like a personal trainer for your brain.



End notes: 
Buettner, D. (2010). Thrive: Finding happiness the Blue Zones way. Washington, DC: National Geographic.
Nonexercise activity thermogenesis – liberating the life-force - Levine - 2007 - Journal of Internal Medicine - Wiley Online Library. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2796.2007.01842.x/full
Polyphenols are medicine: Is it time to prescribe red wine for our patients? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2903024/
The Social Connectedness of Older Adults: A National Profile*. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2583428/