BY TRACY McCUBBIN, MD, ABOIM, ABEM
The Blue Zones
In 2004, the US National Institute on Aging funded a study by Dan Buettner, author and explorer. He gathered anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists and other researchers to travel the world and study communities with the highest numbers of happy, healthy and functional centenarians. He published the common denominators of these 100+ year old people in a book called The Blue Zones. It turns out, many of their lifestyles and attitudes were quite similar. He identified the five healthiest communities around the world: Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica and Loma Linda, CA.
It turns out that these seniors have a lot in common despite their genetic differences and living in widely separated regions of the world. Their universal healthy habits include regular physical and mental exercise, healthy diet, focus on family and community, and a sense of purpose.
It can be difficult to figure out just exactly what living a healthy life really means. With the framework of findings from the Blue Zone study, we will coalesce our secrets to help you feel younger and live your healthiest, longest life!
Get Physically Active
Telomeres are the ends of our genes. They fray and shorten with age leading to a shorter life span and chronic disease. Medical research shows that exercise is first on the list to prolong the length of our telomeres.
The USDA and AHA recommend that adults get at least 200 minutes of exercise per week. Cardiovascular exercise that is weight-bearing such as walking, running, hiking, dancing (think Zumba) or playing basketball is crucial to your work-out routine for heart health and bone strength. Add in some non-weight bearing on occasion like swimming or cycling to give your joints a break. Strength training with weights 2 times per week to maintain muscle mass and body weight rounds out your program.
Whether doing a few sun salutations in the morning on your back porch or joining a regular class, yoga provides a host of benefits. Randomized, controlled trials in the medical literature show that yoga:
· Improves balance and stability – strengthening muscles and decreasing risk of falls in the elderly
· Improves flexibility and joint health – therapeutic for those suffering from arthritis
· Reduces high blood pressure – reduces oxidative stress one of the underlying causes of hypertension and heart disease
· Reduces anxiety – by dampening the sympathetic “fight or flight response” and enhancing your parasympathetic nervous system, yoga reduces stress and inflammation
Sign up for a heated or hot yoga class and you get the added detoxification benefits by sweating out all those toxins as you compress your joints and use your muscles!
Use Food As Medicine
As Michael Pollen said, “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Centenarians eat whole, real food with very little processed food in their diets. And those diets are plant based with lots of colorful fruits and vegetables. According to a large study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, eating a Mediterranean style diet decreases risk of death from all causes by 20%. Another study showed that this anti-inflammatory-style diet does so by prolonging our telomeres! This is the second “best-practice” with published studies in the medical literature.
The majority of centenarians eat fruit and vegetables that are homegrown or locally grown organic products. Picking up food at a local farmer’s market not only fosters a sense of community (another factor in longevity) but also allows you to eat seasonally when the fruits and vegetables are more nutritionally dense.
Learning to practice portion control, like most centenarians, can be a healthy eating habit. Consuming excess calories leads to weight gain and health risks. The Okinawans, for example, practice “Hara hachi bu” a Confucian mantra said before meals that reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. They also eat off small plates to limit food consumption. Take a look the size of your plates. It may be worth downsizing to help limit your portion sizes!
Eating is best accomplished with family and friends! Slowing down, being present with your food and connecting with others fosters good digestion and a happy gut! Mealtimes are celebrations, a time to give thanks and bond as a family. As a rule, people in the Blue Zones, “never eat alone, never eat standing up, and never eat with one hand on the steering wheel” says Buettner.
In fact, socializing and gathering together is something that all the Blue Zones have in common. If you spend quality time with like-minded people in your community, you will feel happier and have a sense of purpose.
Close relationships, in fact, seem to be a key factor in longevity. A 2010 meta-analysis, which included over 300,000 people, found that social relationships can influence mortality as much as risk factors like smoking and drinking and actually have a greater impact than risk factors like inactivity and obesity.
Your Mind is Such a Terrible Thing to Waste
Maintain your mental agility by learning something new. Consider learning some conversational French and going to Paris. Take piano lessons or learn to play tennis. Keep your mind in tip-top shape by using it daily. This is a best practice for our centenarians!
Many of our daily routines are simply habits. It is beneficial to change them up once in a while. Alter your daily routine by walking your dog in a new park. Keep building new neural pathways by shopping at a different grocery store.
Challenge yourself by playing games like Sudoku or doing a crossword puzzle. Research has consistently shown these activities to help maintain your brain. After all, it is a muscle that needs to be worked out to be strong and fit.
Understand the Importance of Stress Management
Chronic, daily stress that so many of us experience as a normal part of life is a big contributor to mortality. Many illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and autoimmune conditions are directly related to stress. Learn how to slow down and smell the roses, appreciate a beautiful sunset or revel in a child’s laughter. Be thankful for the little things by developing an attitude of gratitude.
One of the best ways to cope with stress is meditation, as it prolongs the length of our telomeres.You do not have to sit in a quiet room for hours. As little as 7-10 minutes per day has been shown to be beneficial. The key is developing a daily practice of quieting the mind.
Age is not a number; it is a state of mind. You ARE as old as you feel. So choose to feel young. Do not let age dictate your youthfulness. Adults forget how to play. Be child-like and keep a playful attitude all through your years!
By forming healthy habits, you can optimize your lifestyle – and may gain an extra decade of good living that you might otherwise have missed. Use your lifestyle to create a younger version of yourself. Learn from the centenarians in the Blue Zones to create a healthy, connected and purposeful life.
Radiance Functional Medicine is here to help you with your healthy aging journey. Call us and schedule an appointment today!