The Blue Zone Hype, Explained
Christopher Ehlers READ TIME: 11 MIN.
The internet has been buzzing about the Blue Zone ever since Netflix first aired its new travel and self-improvement show, "Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones." For those unfamiliar, blue zones are essentially longevity hotspots where people have consistently lived to 100+. In addition to longer life expectancy than other parts of the world, blue zoners also boast lower rates of chronic diseases such as dementia, heart disease, and cancer.
According to a recently published article by Yahoo! News, researchers Michel Poulain and Giovanni Mario Pres first coined the term "blue zone" after studying longevity in Sardinia where they found the highest concentration of male centenarians anywhere on the earth. Following this initial discovery, author Dan Buettner–who is featured prominently in the Netflix show–discovered other blue zone areas: Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and an Adventist community in Loma Linda, California.
According to Eva Humphries, a registered nutritionist with BANT (the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine), despite the distance between these destinations, "they share similarities in their approach to wellbeing by putting emphasis on a whole food-based diet, daily exercise, and community activities. These health-promoting activities and lifestyle variables offer many fantastic learning opportunities that may support our wellbeing irrespective of location," she added.
But what makes blue zones so special? According to Yahoo! News, Buettner and a team of other researchers set out to find common traits among these blue zones. They discovered nine specific lifestyle habits that they call the "Power 9." Here's what they found:
"Blue zoners don't necessarily break a sweat in the gym or train for hours on end. Actually, it's the environments they come from that require them to be constantly moving and on the go. For example, the Netflix series revealed that people in Okinawa are always tending to their gardens, or that the Sardinians live in steep, small villages and are always walking (thanks to the lack of mechanical conveniences) on an incline. Bottom line? Make time for a daily walk and always take the stairs."
""The Okinawans call it 'Ikigai' and the Nicoyans call it 'plan de vida'," writes the official blue zone site, both of which translate to "why I wake up in the morning." It may sound simple, but - again, according to the research - having a sense of purpose can add up to "seven years of extra life expectancy.""
"Sadly, there's no escaping stress, even in blue zones. But they just know how to manage it better. In a nutshell, the world's longest-living people have found daily routines that don't exert or enhance stress. They also make sure to take time for themselves if things get too much. For example, Sardinians do a happy hour, Ikarians take a nap (two things we can absolutely get on board with), and Okinawans remember their ancestors."
"The Okinawans follow a 2,500 year old mantra that reminds them to finish eating when they feel 80% full. Plus, people in blue zones eat their smallest meals either early evening or late afternoon. This 2022 Harvard study found that late-night eating and weight gain were linked, as it "affects how the body stores fat and regulates appetite hormones.""
"From watching the Netflix show, it's clear that all of the blue zones follow pretty much the same (or similar) diet, which is their own version of a typical Mediterranean one. (And which we all know is one of the healthiest diets going.) This basically means opting for little meat but more plant-based ingredients, like beans, greens, yams and sweet potatoes, fruits, nuts, and seeds."
"As a nutritionist, I can see why this may work so well," says Eva, explaining that vegetables contain a heap of health-promoting nutrients that many of us miss out on.
In terms of diet in general, she adds that whole foods contain more nutrients and fiber which studies indicate may be beneficial for health and longevity."
"Did somebody say wine o' clock? If you were worried that following a blue zone lifestyle meant giving up life's little pleasures like wine (for some, not all), you'd be *widely* mistaken. Actually, people in all blue zones (bar Adventists), enjoy a tipple (one to two glasses to be specific) most days. But - they don't overdo it. Which means you can't save up those imaginary drinks tokens to go on a bender at the weekend."
"For the blue zone research, 263 centenarians were interviewed, and only five of them didn't belong to some sort of faith-based community. It showed that belonging to something bigger than you, and attending at least four faith-based services a month can add four to 14 years of extra life."
Loved ones first
"Family-first is another of the most important social mantras in every blue zone. From caring for older relatives to being in positive, committed relationships, (and encouraging every age group to take part in family activities or help out), this power 9 can add up to six years of life."
"The world's longest-living people are either born into healthy support circles (which, sadly cannot be the case everywhere), or choose to create their own. See: the Ikarians in Greece make time to frequently socialize with their community, while the Okinawans curated their own support-system, called 'Moai.' 'Moais' are a group of five friends that commit to each other for life - through thick and thin."