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Be in the (Blue) Zone

by Becca Hensley

Approximately two decades ago, author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, along with other researchers, noticed miracu- lous “Fountain of Youth” pockets that existed around the world. At first glance, these locations, set in diverse regions, seemed to have little in common. What they did share, though, was a robust populace of elders who not only lived long, but lived well—maintaining ambula- tory health as well as mental clarity, not to mention emotional bliss, far into their senior years. Many were centenarians.

Further studies by the team showed an overlap in lifestyle— common indigenous habits, (mostly) parallel to all the regions. These shared traits, when combined in daily life, appeared to boost health and prolong life span. When cataloging them, Buettner and his team of demographers found five distinct places that had the oldest, hardiest populations on earth. Inspired by the blue ink used to circle these salutary locales on a map, his team christened them Blue Zones.

Officially branded (and today, the meat and potatoes of Buettner’s current wellness informational empire), the original zones include: Ikaria (an island in Greece), Sardinia (an island off the coast of Italy), Loma Linda (a city in the San Bernardino Valley in Southern California, home to a high population of Seventh Day Adventists), Japan’s Okinawa (an island between Taiwan and Japan), and Costa Rica’s lush Nicoya Peninsula. (Note: a variety of other locations, such as Sweden and Italy, also tout their centenarians and healthy lifestyle, though they can’t officially embrace “Blue Zone” status since this is Buettner’s term.)

As part of his ongoing research, Buettner delineated the lifestyle traits he felt kept these populations healthy. Ranging from mostly plant-based diets and a modicum amount of daily wine to deep commitment to friends and family, the common practices included not just what people ate, but how they perceived and processed the world emotionally and spiritually.

Love the One You’re With

It seems so simple. Open your heart.

Buettner (and others) found that the Blue Zones honored community, embraced faith and deified family. Being bonded is key, and knowing where you belong matters. “I have been going to my ancestral island every summer—Ikaria—since I was 13 years old,” says New Yorker Chrissa Lefes. “I would stay in the hotel my grandfather built along the coastline of the Aegean Sea, and visit my grandfather in his home in the mountains—a home that I have since inherited and have been renovating with great love and passion. Ikaria has a deep, deep sense of community. The elderly are not only involved in every aspect of family life, but they are revered as integral members of Ikarian society.”

Public television’s Diane Kochilas, host of My Greek Table, also from Ikaria, explains that because the island was always a poor place, people learned to help each other, creating a sense of solidarity. “Blood ties help, of course! We are all related, somehow, if one digs back a few generations,” she says. Across the globe, in Japan, Kumiko Teruya, an Okinawan guide with ToursByLocals, credits the island’s many healthy “elderly people with bright smiles” to their social life. “Okinawans enjoy spending time with their friends, neighbors and families. They often get together to chit-chat (yuntaku), have fun and care for one other. Many elderly have told me that being with childhood friends, or longtime friends, is when they feel happiest,” she says.

Have a Raison d’être

In Costa Rica, they call it plan de vida. “In Okinawa, they say ‘ikigai.’ It means a reason for being,” says Teruya. “We treasure the elderly, so the elderly love taking care of the grandchildren in return, for example. That’s their ikigai,” she explains. “This has very little to do with work, as we define it in the West’s industrialized societies,” says Kochilas. “In fact, for Ikarians, purpose might mean something as simple as tending the garden or grazing the goats. It might mean seeing your children or grandchildren, or going to the village cafe to sit with your friends and share the news of the day. It generally means being happy to wake up in the morning to enjoy the serendipity of the day. Ikarians hate to plan things,” she says, creating a vivid, chill image of going with the flow. Centered peacefulness and contentedness seem to be the lesson here. Live in the present. Know who you are. Settle into that.

Let It Go

Clearly, none of us want stress. But, does that stop it from creeping into our lives? What Buettner’s team—and others—have learned is that the happiest countries are the ones that manage it best. Amongst the official Blue Zone sites, entrenched rituals exist to eschew anxiety and to recalibrate each day.

“Afternoon naps play a key role in the long life of the Ikarians —as the nightlife extends way into the morning hours,” says Lefes of her fellow Greek islanders. Teruya references “chimugukuru”, an Okinawan word that means “beautiful heart” or a “mutual understanding of one another.” “We laugh a lot in Okinawa,” says Teruya. “It keeps you healthy.”

Sardinians know how to take breaks. In Sardinia, there’s aperitivo time for unwinding. The Seventh Day Adventists pray and meditate. And the Costa Ricans celebrate nature, letting it remind them of the importance of things.

Shake Your Body

Movement also reigns as key. Not daily Bikram yoga, running, lap swimming or body building, but the perpetual motion that supports sustenance and livelihood, particularly in simpler, less modernized locales. Walking the hills to forage for wood in Ikaria, farming in Costa Rica, fishing in Okinawa and Sardinia, and child care, cooking and home maintenance in Loma Linda, perhaps. “It is not uncommon to see a 90-year-old man walking with his goats along a footpath or a 90-year-old woman gathering herbs for her evening family meal. Ikarians live life to the fullest,” explains Lefes.

Love What Grows

In terms of nutrition, Buettner’s Blue Zone research concludes that his various Blue Zone regions eat locally and consume little meat. The Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda (one of the only Zone teetotaling groups) famously follow vegetarian dining edicts. Costa Ricans heavily consume beans. Okinawans incorporate tropical fruit galore, as well as lesser-known plant food—such as bitter melon and mozuku seaweed. It all sounds a lot like what we’re trying to do for ourselves daily as enlightened consumers, though fast food commercialism interferes.

In some Blue Zone areas, chefs have brought local eating to the table. “Thanks to a healthy diet, with classic products such as olive oil, pecorino cheese (from sheep’s milk) and fresh vegetables, such as fava and garbanzo beans and tomatoes, our island is famous for its exceptional longevity,” says one of Sardinia’s most famous epicureans, Executive Chef Maurizio Locatelli. “To live longer
you don’t need to deprive yourself the pleasures of life, only to choose the right products, cooked in the right way. This is what I offer my guests when they dine at Cala di Volpe, a Luxury Collection Hotel.” The island, edged with stunning beaches, also tipples well, with a garnet red wine called Cannonou and milk thistle tea (a
liver cleanser).

“On Ikaria, locally sourced food from fresh fish to honey to tea made from hill-grown leaves and wine produced from local grapes, adds to the longevity of the inhabitants,” says Lefes. Chef Kochilas gets more specific. “It is a bit of a myth that the diet of the 90- and 100-year-olds is all plant-based,” she says, “It was to a great degree, but Ikarians have always been goat herders and goat meat—as well as chicken, rooster and fish—have always been fairly readily

available sources of protein. Of course, wild greens and mushrooms, which people walk and forage for up and down hills and mountains, garden vegetables, olive oil, grains and all the other elements of the Mediterranean diet are all still part of the table on the island.”

Further north in Sweden’s southern realms, particularly the region of Skåne, many residents live to 100 and beyond. Though not one of Buettner’s official Blue Zones, most health experts agree that Sweden—among other various tracts around the world—also boasts longevity due to healthful lifestyles. Just south of Kivik, on Skåne’s eastern side, Allé, a restaurant nestled among the pastures and fields, honors its modern day connections to growers and breeders in the area. Owner and chef Eva Thuresson revels in the terroir. “Here, we have many farmers, fishermen and apple growers,” she says. “We live close to nature, which is appreciated and cared for by all of us who live here—old and young. In terms of food, we have a tradition of taking care of the locally produced items, and we follow the season when it comes to choosing raw materials—which span a wide variety, including game, fish, vegetables, mushrooms, pigs. There is pride in what we do.”

There isn’t a magic elixir for life eternal. But, one look at these grounded societies, cultures fully focused in the present tense, yet fueled by their centuries-old traditions—reminds us that wellness isn’t about just one path. Mind, body and spirit must fuse to keep us healthy. As we face each day, we must honor our emotional, spiritual and physical health and well-being the best we can. When we falter, we must start all over again the next day, and do better. Surely, the Blue Zone elders would agree.

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