The number of centenarians found in the US are roughly one per 5,000. In one village of 2500 people in Sardinia, Italy, 7 centenarians were found. In Okinawa, Japan, 5 centenarians per 5,000 people were found. The island of Ikaria had up to 3 times as many healthy people over age ninety as the rest of Greece. You get the picture. It came of no surprise that after reading about these different Blue Zones, all of the centenarians had so many things in common. They are all so extraordinarily ordinary that their routines are common habits that people can incorporate into their life. Here is a list of things that I have learned from all of them and these are literally some of the most powerful lessons to achieve a longer, better quality of life ~
- Find your purpose in life. In Okinawa, they call it ‘kigai’ and in Nicoya, they call it ‘Plan de vida.’ In both cultures, the phrase translates to “why I wake up in the morning.’ Whether they are watching or raising their grandchildren, providing them with love, childcare, financial help, wisdom, and motivation to perpetuate traditions, these centenarians all seem to have in common the strong sense of being of service to others or care for their family.
- Family comes first. As I had discussed previously, the most common thing centenarians shared was that they all have a strong sense of purpose ~ why they wake up in the morning. Family plays a huge part in this role. Most of the centenarians that I read about live with members of their family so that every member is cared for. In America, there is one out of 5,000 centenarians that have been discovered and one of the many reasons could be that seniors tend to live apart from their children and grandchildren, often being sent to retirement homes when they become unable to take care of themselves. People who live in strong, healthy families suffer lower rates of depression, suicide and stress.
- Eat more plants. I’m pretty sure that nobody has ever heard the phrase ~ ‘vegetables are bad for you’ or ‘don’t eat your veggies.’ In fact, we usually hear the reverse when were younger. This was another common theme found within these Blue Zones. All the centenarians relied heavily on a plant based diet, with meat eaten only on a rare occasion. They developed this habit most of their lives due to the fact that they were mostly very poor growing up so they could only afford eating what they grew in their own garden. The classic Sardinian diet consisted of whole grain bread, beans, garden veggies, fruits, and mastic oil (its regular consumption has been proven to absorb cholesterol, thus easing high blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart attacks), Loma Linda Adventists, who followed the diet out of the bible, ate legumes, peas, beans, fruits, and a lot of nuts, etc. As you can see, the diets in the Blue Zones didn’t fall close to short of being healthy. All of these foods are so nutrient rich, compacted with vitamins and minerals, its no wonder they kept their energy high for all those years.
- Plant your own garden. Almost all of the centenarians I have read about grow or once grew a garden. There are so many benefits contributed to this ~ it’s a source of daily physical activity that exercises the body with a wide range of motion; It supplies you with a near-constant source of fresh organic vegetables, not to mention the wide variety of medicinal plants that are grown. For example, Okinawans grew Mugwort, ginger and turmeric, which protected them against illnesses; Gardening is known to be very therapeutic and meditative and this in turn helps to reduce stress. Not only did gardening keep the centenarians physically fit and healthy, but it also kept their mind calm and at ease.
- Stay active. What was wonderful to discover about these centenarians were that although they were 100 years or older, they still had a noticeable amount of energy. They weren’t on their death bed or physically immobile. They actually were as active, if not more, as a lot of young adults. Sardinians walked five miles a day; Okinawans were also active walkers and gardeners; Ikarian centenarians stayed active by gardening, walking to their neighbors house (which usually took about an hour), or doing their own yard work. The lesson here is that you don’t have to be a marathoner or work out for two hours at the gym every day to “stay active.” Just start to incorporate more mindless movement into your life, whether that is taking your dog for more walks or planting a garden.
- Soak in the sun. The last two lessons go hand-in-hand with this one! Whether they were gardening or staying active by walking outside, these centenarians took in as much sunshine as they could. This helps their body produce vitamin D for strong bones and healthy body function. It can also reduce the risk of getting osteoporosis and heart disease.
- Eat in moderation. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “The bigger the better.” Here in America is where that phrase is definitely celebrated. This could be why most Americans are fat, sick, or nearly dead. In these Blue Zones, they seemed to have thrived not only on a healthy plant based diet but also on how much of it they consumed. They had to grow their own food when they were younger and the most common food that was in season during those times were sweet potatoes, which would be the only thing they ate all day. This played a big part on how much they ate later on. For instance, in Okinawa, before the old folks eat, they say ‘Hara Hachi Bu,’ and this translated to “eat until you are 80 percent full.” This is because it takes about twenty minutes for the stomach to tell the brain its full. Eating this way produces less damaging oxidants-agents that rust the body from within. These plant based meals have three or four times as much volume and more nutrients then, say, an American hamburger, but only about half the calories.
- Take time to relax. People who have made it to 100 seem to exude a sense of sublime serenity. Part of this could be because naturally their physical bodies slow down as they age, but a big part is that they’re wise enough to know that many of life’s most precious moments will simply pass us by if were blindly trying to reach some goal. How does slowing down help you live longer? The answer, as the author writes, may have something to do with chronic inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s reaction to stress, which can come in the form of injury, an infection, or anxiety. Though small amount of stress can be good, the negative effects of chronically triggered inflammation can build up to create conditions in the body that may promote age related diseases. Aside from that, slowing down adds richness to life and ties together the lessons of ~ eating right, appreciating relationships, finding time for spirituality, and creating things that bring purpose. The advise of a 107 year old woman from a Sardinian village, who outlived most of her children, is this ~ “Life is short. Don’t run so fast you miss it.”
- Develop a spiritual practice. Healthy centenarians everywhere have faith. The author explains that the Sardinians and Nicoyans are mostly catholic; Okinawans have a blended religion that stresses ancestor worship; Loma Linda centenarians are Seventh-day Adventists; Ikarians have traditionally been Greek orthodox. He goes on to explain that the simple act of worship is one of those subtly powerful habits that seems to improve your chances of having more good years. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. The faithful are happier and healthier. Developing a spiritual practice like meditation, self-reflection, higher thinking, and prayer are all crucial for happiness as we are all spiritual beings. This helps us to come back to our natural state, giving us a sense of purpose and contentment.