In the search for a long, healthy life, we come across many creams, tonics, and workout classes promising to keep us toned and feeling good. Some say it’s just a matter of good genes, yet more studies suggest that only about 25 percent of how long we live is actually determined by our DNA.
Dan Buettner studies the 75 percent of our lifespan determined by our lifestyle choices. As an explorer and writer, he uncovers secrets to longevity found in cultures around the world. For years he’s been investigating areas he calls Blue Zones, or longevity hot spots, including Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California: and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
Each of the Blue Zones are areas with people living to be 100 or more with little disease or need for medication. If you’ve ever visited any of these areas, you might have some pretty good guesses about why these people easily live to be centenarians or more. They are not obsessed with the right superfoods or vitamin supplements to stay youthful; they simply know how to live well.
Take Costa Rica, an international destination known for its friendly people and beautiful landscape, and home to Omega's winter programs. The national mantra pura vida (pure life) means, “live life to the fullest” or be “full of life.” People use the phrase as a greeting, goodbye, or way to express how their day is going.
This tiny country has many facets that help contribute to longevity. It’s the longest uninterrupted democracy in Central America, has no army, and asserts about a 95 percent literacy rate. It has been named the world's happiest country many times by the united Kingdom-based New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet Index, which rates 151 nations measuring ecological sustainability against well-being and life expectancy.
Costa Ricans spend a fraction of what Americans spend on health care (only about 15 percent) and yet they experience some of the highest rates of longevity in the world. The Nicoya Peninsula, which is a remote, tropical area located near the southern border of Nicaragua, boasts the lowest rates of cancer in the country Costa Rican men at age 60 have double the chance of reaching age 90 as men living in the United States, Japan, or France, according to Blue Zones research.
So what’s their secret?
To start, the water supply in Nicoya Peninsula is naturally rich in calcium and magnesium. They also get plenty of health boosts from maintaining an active lifestyle and getting good amounts of sunlight. Enjoying at least 15 minutes of natural sunlight daily decreases the risk for developing both osteoporosis and heart disease, according to Harvard School of Public Health.
They also consistently get a good night’s sleep. Nicoyans sleep about eight hours each night, thanks in large part to a sparse amount of electricity in the area. They go to bed before 9:00 p.m. and wake with the sun.
Of course, the local diet also plays a part in their longevity. They eat rich, colorful foods local to their region. The maroñon, a reddish-orange fruit contains more vitamin C than an orange. Plus, almost everyone has a garden rich with rice, corn, and beans—the staple foods of the region. Beans (and eating less meat in general) are the foundation of most centenarians’ diets. They also eat their biggest meal in the morning before they start their workday and their smallest meal at night.
We know these principles work well in the Blue Zones. The good news is you can incorporate these simple habits into life anywhere on the planet.
Basic Blue Zones Principles
Move naturally. Don't worry about running marathons or getting to the gym everyday, simply working around the house and garden, or taking walks or bike rides around the neighborhood works well for those in the Blue Zone.
Know your purpose. Nicoyan centenarians are motivated by their plan de vida, or reason to live. Many times, this sense of purpose centers around spending time with and providing for their family—another longevity tip!
Kick back. Work on ways to shed your stress, whether it's praying, napping, or just hanging out with friends.
Eat less. The Blue Zone recommendation is to stop eating when you feel about 80 percent full.
Eat less meat. Go for more beans and nuts or look for other plant-based protein.
Drink in moderation. Moderation means about one-to-two glasses of beer or wine a day. There's no need for binge drinking when you already have developed other ways to unwind.
Have faith. It doesn’t matter what you believe, but believe in something. People who live in Blue Zones attend faith-based services about four times each month.
Power of love. Family comes first in the Blue Zones, and that includes committing to a partner and living near extended family.
Stay social. Social media in a Blue Zone probably means getting together and talking with friends or drinking tea together.
© 2014 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies