By Dr. Alison McAllister, ZRT Laboratory
Did you know there are 5 places in the world where your odds of living to 100 are greater than anywhere else on the planet?
These regions are called "Blue Zones" and include Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Loma Linda (California, Seventh-day Adventists), Nicoya (Costa Rica), and Ikaria (Greece).
Based on the research and writings of Dan Buettner, people are studying these communities to try to find out how they have tapped into the fountain of youth and are trying to introduce these tools into new communities and towns.
What do these Blue Zone communities have in common?
- A strong sense of family
- They eat very little meat and processed foods, but instead eat a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, especially beans, and have a moderate caloric intake
- They do moderate exercise every day as a function of living – they walk to work, garden, climb hills, etc.
- They have a moderate amount of wine per day with friends and family
- They have an active, strong social life
- They report less stress, sleep well, and nap
- They have a strong sense of purpose in their lives
- They have a strong faith basis to their lives
So how can we incorporate these traits into our everyday existence and how do they make a difference to our cardiovascular health?
Social and Family Support
In most of these cultures, we find that social and family support is key. I would also argue that faith and religious gatherings are also a part of this. So how do social, family, and faith support help you live longer and, more importantly perhaps, better?
There are several studies showing that being isolated increases mortality. You are more likely not to get help when you need it, and being isolated can be stressful. But the studies by the Blue Zone group and others have found more interesting information. They found that being surrounded by groups of people who are living a certain way helps you to live that way as well.
In other words, if everyone around you is walking, eating healthily, and avoiding certain behaviors, you are likely to stay on track and do the same – the "big brother is watching" phenomenon. This can work for you or against you; as the Framingham study found, people who were overweight were much more likely to have overweight friends. But I also think that social and family support can reduce overall stress. You know that everyone is there for you when things are good, and when they are bad.
These communities also eat lower caloric foods that are high in antioxidants. They all have different diets, and I think that the research has yet to show that one of the diets is better than the other.
I believe the biggest factors are that they eat a lot of veggies, fiber, and antioxidants. Their antioxidants come from teas, wine, and fruits and veggies. They eat little to no processed foods which tend to be higher in calories, chemicals, and sodium. They eat with family and friends, which lowers stress levels multiple times per day.
While we can’t change everyone’s behavior toward health, we can make small changes that encourage overall health.
These communities exercise in a moderate way every day as a way of life. Interestingly, although people may go to gyms, we are seeing a decline in this everyday exercise in modern America.
One of the biggest reasons cited is that areas aren’t as safe as they used to be. People limit outdoor movement and exercise according to their perception of safety. In the 1950s, most children walked to school. In fact, my mother walked to school, home for lunch, back to school and then back home again at the end of the day – as a 6 year old, by herself, in downtown Toronto.
In 1969, the National Center for Safe Routes to School found that 48% of children aged 5-14 walked or bicycled to school. In 2009, this was reduced to 13% although the numbers of children living within a mile of school was reduced by only 10% (Sirard and Slater, 2009).
This lack of walking to school or even playing in the streets is perhaps both a consequence and a cause of the change in the perception of safety in the community that impacts children, which also affects adults. How can that be? There is a self-perpetuating cycle where parents are fearful of letting their children walk to school because no one else is walking to school, therefore creating the image that walking to school or anywhere else must be unsafe. Thus adults as well as elderly people are not out in their communities watching the children, which also reduces their opportunities to socialize with each other.
The psychology of human nature tells us that if people are walking in the community, especially children, then an area must be safe. When communities encourage residents to walk by creating spaces for them to enjoy nature, people will naturally start to walk, which in turn encourages community.
An experiment to change behavior
So, the Blue Zone Community did an experiment to see if they could change the health of a community.
They used a town in Minnesota, Albert Lea, for the experiment. They found that they could change the behavior of this community by making exercise options accessible and easy, by changing the wording on menus in restaurant food to encourage people to choose the healthy option, by limiting snacking in schools, by encouraging only healthy options as impulse buys at the grocery store, and by encouraging people to engage socially in their community.
Years after the experiment, success is still evident; they changed the foundation by which people interact in their personal sphere. Now, more towns are signing up as they see that this impacts citizens’ attendance at work and school and lowers health care costs. While we can’t change everyone’s behavior toward health, we can make small changes that encourage overall health.
Stepping into the Blue Zone
Tips for ways to step into the blue zone include:
- Walk your children to school 1 day a week (or more). Take turns with other parents so that it is more feasible with busy work schedules.
- Let your children play in the street (with discretion). Not only will your children enjoy it, but it creates a community of neighbors, slows traffic down, and encourages elderly neighbors to come out of their houses.
- Build a community. It doesn’t have to be with a religious group, although it may be for you, but it could also be around a volunteer position, your neighborhood, a hobby, or your children’s school.
- Eat more vegetables – period. You don’t have to become vegan, but try to incorporate at least 1 vegetable at every meal of the day with a goal of at least 5 servings per day.
- Eat with friends at work instead of at your desk. Perhaps go for a walk together every day. You’ll keep yourselves accountable and lower your stress burden.
- Add more fiber to your diet. Most of these communities ate more beans per day than average.
- Create a family mission statement about what you and/or your family wish for the world. Having a positive sense of purpose in how you are making a difference satisfies us and feeds our psyches.