A trip to the library changed Luann Alemao’s life—and the small city of Cedar Falls, Iowa—forever. While browsing the new arrivals shelf a few years ago, Alemao found “The Blue Zones” by Dan Buettner, a 2012 New York Times bestseller showcasing five locations in the world with the highest percentage of people living well into their 100s.
Alemao, a former family and consumer sciences educator, remembers feeling more than a little amazed by the book. “I thought, wow, this is everything I used to teach, like food and nutrition, marriage and family, and consumer education, plus all the evidence and research to support it. I couldn’t believe that it was all here, all condensed into one book.”
With Alemao’s help, Cedar Falls eventually became a certified Blue Zones Project community, and that made it an even more desirable place to live. “It’s more bikeable and walkable, we have healthier schools and safer workplaces, and there’s a high level of volunteerism,” she said.
“Volunteering gives people purpose and a reason to get up in the morning. And people with purpose live longer—that’s one of the Power 9.”
The Power 9, as outlined in “The Blue Zones,” are the nine lifestyle principles that Buettner and his team documented during extensive research trips to the world’s five blue zones: Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, California; Okinawa, Japan; and Icaria, Greece.
These principles, Buettner explains, are common elements of the lifestyle and dietary habits and overall outlook the centenarians share in each location he visited. They’re a recipe for longevity, he says. “But it’s an a la carte menu; you don’t have to do all of them.”
Here’s how you can apply these proven principles to your life—or even your community.
1. Move Naturally
Be active without having to think about it. Staying active doesn’t necessarily mean just going to the gym a few times a week. It means making low-intensity physical activity a daily part of life, and little changes make a big difference. “One common denominator I noticed right away in the five Blue Zones is that they all have fairly hilly terrain,” Buettner explained. “So walking these hills is part of their everyday lives, and it’s serious physical activity.”
The point is to keep moving and to make sure you weave aerobic, balance, and muscle-strengthening activities into your daily routine, whether you’re at work or play.
Get more physical activity at work. Pace during phone calls, walk to a colleague’s office rather than emailing, and conduct meetings during walks.
Inconvenience yourself. Get rid of handy helpers like the TV remote, the snowblower, the power lawn mower, and the automatic car wash, and do things the old-fashioned way.
Plant a garden. It’s a full-range-of-motion activity, plus it reduces stress and can produce fresh, healthy foods.
2. Practice ‘Hara Hachi Bu’
Painlessly cut calories by 20 percent. The Confucian-inspired adage “hara hachi bu” is a reminder to stop eating when your stomach is 80-percent full. This means you eat until you no longer feel hungry, but stop before you’re completely stuffed.
When you cut calories, you lose weight. Even shedding only 10 percent of your body weight can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol level, which reduces your risk of heart disease. Cutting calories, Buettner says, may also reduce cellular damage from free radicals.
But diets are hard to stick to, so the secret—besides choosing healthier, whole foods—is to learn how to consume less at each meal.
Don’t serve meals family-style. With heaping bowls of food on the dining table for everyone to help themselves, you’ll all consume about 14 percent more than if you dish out everything at the counter and put the rest away.
Trick your mind and stomach. Try making food look bigger than it is by, for example, cutting back on the cheese and meat in a sandwich and loading it up with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and other veggies.
Use smaller plates and bowls. The bigger the dish, the more we fill it (and then think we have to eat it all).
Focus on your food, not the TV. Eat more slowly to give your body time to recognize the signs that you’re no longer feeling hungry.
3. Take a Plant Slant
Avoid meat and processed foods. “Another common denominator of centenarians in the world’s five Blue Zones is that they’re all cut off from food culture influences,” Buettner said, so they’ve never really had the chance to eat processed foods or salty snacks. And they rarely eat meat, either because they’ve made a choice to avoid it or because they don’t have access to it. Buettner’s research showed that the centenarians’ longevity diets were based on beans, whole grains and vegetables (usually grown in their own gardens). One of the keys, he says, is to find a balance—everything in moderation.
Eat vegetables daily. Aim for four to six servings (two to six cups).
Limit meat portions. Stick to portions no larger than the size of a deck of cards.
Eat nuts. However, watch your portion sizes; a 1-ounce serving can be 150 to 200 calories.
4. Enjoy the Grapes of Life
Drink red wine (in moderation). A drink or two a day appears to reduce stress and the effects of chronic inflammation, Buettner says, but there are risks to drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, such as a possible increase in breast cancer risk; damage to the brain, liver, and other organs; and a higher risk of accidents.
Buettner found that for those who have a healthy relationship with alcohol, a glass of red wine per day offers numerous health benefits, especially if it’s red wine, which contains polyphenols that are shown to combat arteriosclerosis. Choose a high-quality, dark-red wine (although one drink per day of beer or spirits may also offer some benefits).
Eat dark chocolate. According to the World Cocoa Foundation, 1.75 ounces of dark chocolate (at least 71 percent cacao) has the same amount of beneficial polyphenols as 6.5 ounces of Tannat wine, a red variety originally from the Basque region (near the France–Spain border.)
5. Find Purpose
Take time to see the big picture. Buettner’s research showed that many centenarians credit their longevity to having a sense of purpose or a defined goal—”why I wake up in the morning.”
This sense of purpose can be for any number of reasons, like having a family you often spend time with, a job you enjoy, a hobby you can’t get enough of, or a fulfilling mission, like volunteering. Having a sense of purpose reduces stress, keeps the brain sharp, and can decrease your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and stroke.
Try writing down your thoughts. If you’re not sure what your life’s purpose is, try writing a list of things you’re especially passionate about, and see what picture emerges.
Tell your friends and family what you feel your life’s goals are. Saying them aloud cements them in your mind, and your network can provide the support you need.
Take time to relieve stress. In his book, Buettner cites a theory by Italian endocrinologist Dr. Claudio Franceschi, who maintains that stress causes inflammation and that “the negative effects of inflammation build up to create conditions in the body that may promote age-related diseases.”
Slowing down life’s pace, Buettner says, not only keeps inflammation down but also “ties together so many of the other lessons—eating right, appreciating friends, finding time for spirituality, making family a priority, and creating things that bring purpose.”
Unplug yourself. Reduce the amount of time you spend watching TV or surfing the internet.
Try meditation. Start with 10 minutes a day, and try to work up to 30 or more.
Get the right amount of sleep. That means not too little or too much.
Participate in a religious community. In his book, Buettner observed that all centenarians belonged to a religious community. “The simple act of worship is one of those subtly powerful habits that seems to improve your chances of having more good years,” Buettner wrote. “It doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu.”
This lesson integrates with other lessons, he explains, because people who belong to a spiritual community are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, have a positive sense of well-being, and are able to “relinquish the stresses of everyday life to a higher power.” Sitting quietly through a service, he says, is also a form of meditation, which helps to relieve stress.
If you’re already a member of a community, Buettner advises becoming even more involved, such as by volunteering.
If you don’t already belong to a community, Buettner suggests trying it just once a week for eight weeks. If you’re not sure where to go, ask friends and family to share their positive experiences.
8. Put Loved Ones First
Make family a priority. In the five Blue Zones, centenarians are completely devoted to their families. In return, their children and grandchildren have a strong familial duty to take care of their elders as they age. “Studies have shown that elders who live with their children are less susceptible to disease, eat healthier diets, have lower levels of stress, and have a much lower incidence of serious accidents,” wrote Buettner.
Consider how your home affects family time. If you live in a large house, it might be more difficult for family members to spend time together, so establish an area where everyone can gather at least once a day.
Rituals and traditions are important, especially for children. If you can’t share a meal as a family once a day, choose one night per week when everyone can be there for dinner, and make it a priority. Have everyone help with preparing and serving the meal. Other possibilities include going out for brunch after church, getting ice cream after Saturday soccer practice, or watching movies on Friday night.
Unplug together as a family. Designate electronics-free zones or times to encourage conversation.
9. Find Your Tribe
Surround yourself with those who share your values. “This is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do to change your lifestyle for the better,” Buettner wrote. When you’re trying to make positive changes in your life, it helps immensely if you have a support network around you, ideally composed of friends and family who are making the same types of changes.
Establish regular times to meet up with members of your inner circle. Meet for coffee, go for a walk, or talk on the phone.
“Be likeable,” Buettner advises. People who are fun to be around have a stronger social network; therefore, they seem to experience less stress and live purposeful lives.
Originally published on NaturalPapa