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Want to see 100? Get blue

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| November 7, 2023 1:00 AM

In case you missed the Oct. 12 column by Geoff Emry, Coeur d’Alene’s self-styled “exercise explorer M.D.,” let me tell you about blue zones.

As Dr. Emry explained, the term “blue zones” was first coined by National Geographic Explorer Dan Buettner to describe five places in the world with an unusually high concentration of healthy people who live to 100. By studying these centenarians — where they live, what they eat, and how they spend their days, researchers discovered they share nine specific lifestyle habits. Emry’s column focused on one, moving naturally, touting the scientifically confirmed benefits of walking as much as possible each day.

To get the most out of a long and healthy life takes the whole nine, the research suggests.

Only one blue zone is in the United States: Loma Linda, California, a Seventh-day Adventist community that tends to outlive other Americans by a decade. The other four are Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan (home to the world's longest-lived women); Ikaria, Greece; and Nicoya, Costa Rica, where people are twice as likely as Americans to reach 90.

What do these folks from disparate parts of the planet have in common? Just the simple things, nothing new. The difference is they’ve made a consistent practice of it over an entire lifetime.

Sounds easy enough. Yet it’s contrary to everyday life in modern America, where our habits and indulgence routines tend to limit our lives to around 77. That’s two decades less than most people in the blue zones, who consistently practice what Buettner and his team call the “Power Nine:”

1. Making movement a natural part of the day. That means a lot of walking, choosing manual labor over automation, much less sitting and more walking. Did I say walking? North Idaho has lovely trail systems, but the neighborhood works as well. Leave the car parked as much as possible. Favor a vacuum and broom over a Roomba. Scrub the tub and wash dishes by hand.

 All movement counts. Automation is quietly killing us.

2. A daily sense of purpose. It needn’t be a big one. Blue zone people are very involved in their communities, families, and activities of all kinds.

3. Making stress relief a habitual priority. Blue zoners have tech, but they don’t spend as much time on them. Try gadgets off with a strict routine of meditation, yoga, fishing, or playing with the dog. Simply staring quietly in wonder at nature, in a forest, at the lake, or just a tree in the yard returns some of that inner balance. Whatever feels good and slows the blood pressure.

4. Eating only until you're about 80% full. This is very contrary to most Americans’ food habits. Think about that one, then observe as you eat.

5. Eating a mostly plant-based diet. Yes, Blue zone people eat eggs regularly and meat once or twice a week, but not daily and certainly not at every meal. Vegetables have protein and can be filling and quite tasty. Think Mediterranean diet – mostly fish and occasional chicken or pork. No beef.

6. Drinking alcohol in moderation. Blue zones favor wine, one to two glasses typically with food. Walking after consuming alcohol helps the body metabolize it.

7. Connecting with community. Regularly socializing with neighbors, friends and family is associated with both psychological and physical health in countless studies.

8. Making “family” (whether biological or chosen) top priority. Life is busy, so this means literally scheduling routine family time if necessary. Blue zoners also keep their elders close until death, generally at home rather than facilities — which has been shown, by this research and others, to lower disease rates and increase longevity by up to six years for all generations.

9. Choosing social circles that practice healthy behaviors. It’s pretty obvious, but it’s easier to stick to important habits when those close to us share them.

The Power Nine sound simple enough. Yet modern lifestyles involve a lot more sitting, staying home with the TV (guilty as charged), overeating and grossly overconsuming meat and processed foods. We shouldn’t be surprised when at 50 we already wake up feeling decades older.

No gym memberships, mega supplements, fancy gear or big budgets necessary. It’s the simple things, essentially returning to how most people used to live. And most importantly, making the nine a near-ritualized habit.

You can learn more about blue zones at Bluezones.com, related books, or the Netflix docuseries about Buettner’s journeys, "Live To 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones."

I’m off for a walk in the trees.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who’s eager to become a pescatarian. Comments and recipes welcome at sholeh@cdapress.com.