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Quick Summary: “The Blue Zones” by New York Times-bestselling author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner is an exploration of longevity, distilling nine lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest, i.e., the centenarians of Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Icaria, Greece.
Who Should Read “The Blue Zones”? And Why?
Some people live longer than others; Dan Buettner has spent more than a decade of his life finding why by exploring the regions with most centenarians personally, by interviewing these centenarians more than once, over a long period of time.
The result is The Blue Zones, a book you must read if you want to live a longer life, and, even more importantly, a life worthy enough to be lengthened.
The Blue Zones Summary
The Book at a Glance
In November 2005, Dan Buettner – then an internationally recognized researcher and explorer, now a New York Times best-selling author as well – wrote a cover story for The National Geographic titled “The Secrets of a Long Life.”
In it, for the first time in history, he used the phrase “blue zones” to refer to regions of the world where people live longer than average.
Three years later, the article evolved in a book – The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest – which in 2012 was revised and updated for a second edition, this one more specifically subtitled: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.
A few other related books and articles have appeared in the meantime, culminating in the Blue Zones Project, Dan Buettner’s attempt to apply his Blue Zones principles to actual communities and towns around the world (mostly in the US).
These principles are listed in the seventh (originally sixth) and last chapter of The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner’s most celebrated and popular book.
Buettner describes this chapter (titled “Your Personal Blue Zone”) as “a cross-cultural distillation of the world’s best practices in longevity”, “a de facto formula for longevity—the best, most credible information available for adding years to your life and life to your years.”
And since the other five chapters are on-field reports of the original five Blue Zones which cover pretty much the same things but with emphasis on the places and people rather than on the action advices, we felt that the best and most useful way to summarize this book is to run through its sixth chapter, i.e., to share with you Dan Buettner’s nine lessons for living longer.
But, before that – let’s just take a quick look at the places.
The Original Blue Zones
A Blue Zone, as we said above, is a place where people live longer than average.
The first edition of Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones discussed four such regions, and the second one added a fifth.
These are the places, “the world’s confirmed longevity hotspots,” the original Blue Zones themselves:
#1. Sardinia, Italy, particularly the Barbagia region;
#2. The islands of Okinawa, Japan;
#3. The Seventh-day Adventist community of Loma Linda, California;
#4. Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and
#5. The island of Icaria, Greece (not included in the first edition).
After an introductory chapter, each of the following five chapters delves deep in these cultures, trying to extract the secrets of longevity; and everywhere Buettner encounters a different culture that has taken its own unique path to long life.
He also shows how “history, genes, and time-honored traditions conspire to favor each population;” and he tries to find scientific explanations why these people live longer (and better) than most of us.
The Nine Lessons for Living Longer
“If you live the average American lifestyle,” writes Dan Buettner at the beginning of the most important chapter of The Blue Zones, “you may never reach your potential maximum lifespan. You might even fall short by as much as a decade.”
And then he asks a rhetorical question: “But what if you could follow a simple program that could help you feel younger, lose weight, maximize your mental sharpness, and keep your body working as long as possible? Indeed, what if you could get back that extra decade of healthy life that you may unknowingly be squandering?”
Of course, Buettner doesn’t stop there, and he goes on to present the “Power Nine,” “the world’s best practices in health and longevity,” all distilled from his experiences with the centenarians of the Blue Zones.
The best part: they are all not merely described, but also paired with relevant strategies to apply them in your life.
Lesson One: Move Naturally
Or: Be active without having to think about it
“Longevity all-stars don’t run marathons or compete in triathlons,” writes Dan Buettner. “Instead, they engage in regular, low-intensity physical activity, often as part of a daily work routine.”
In Sardinia, most of the people spend their lives working as shepherds, a profession which involves miles of hiking on a daily basis; in Okinawa, the centenarians garden for hours every single day; and the Adventists in USA’s only Blue Zone take nature walks.
Now, it’s your turn to follow them thus:
#1. Inconvenience yourself: get rid of your remote control and use the bicycle as often as possible;
#2. Have fun. Keep moving. Don’t force yourself to go to the gym, but do take a walking break instead of a coffee break at work;
#3. Walk with a friend. Find a friend whose company you enjoy and arrange the first of thousands of walking dates.
#4. Plant a garden. Be an Okinawan.
#5. Enroll in a yoga class. Don’t say we haven’t told you this before!
Lesson Two: Hara Hachi Bu
Or: Painlessly cut calories by 20 percent
“Hara Hachi Bu” is a Confucian-inspired adage which all Okinawans say before eating. It means “Eat until you are 80 percent full.”
There’s a reason for that: as the Okinawans know, it takes some time before the stomach tells the brain how full it is, so eating 80 percent is just enough.
That is why the average daily intake of Okinawans is only about 1,900 calories.
Try it yourself:
#1. Serve and store, aka stop eating when you’re 80% full;
#2. Make food look bigger. Drink two smoothies, and you’ll probably eat less for lunch later while feeling even fuller.
#3. Use small vessels. The smaller the vessels, the less you’ll eat (science says so).
#4. Make snacking a hassle. Avoid tempting foods. Put candy bowls, cookie jars, and other temptations out of sight.
#5. Buy smaller packages.
#6. Give yourself a daily reminder. Put the scale in your way.
#7. Eat more slowly. Eating faster results in eating more.
#8. Focus on food. Don’t watch TV while eating.
#9. Have a seat. Also, don’t eat on the run: eat purposefully.
#10. Eat early. Interestingly enough, in the Blue Zones, “the biggest meal of the day is typically eaten during the first half of the day. Nicoyans, Okinawans, and Sardinians eat their biggest meal at midday, while Adventists consume many of their calories for breakfast.”
Lesson Three: Plant Slant
Or: Avoid meat and processed foods
In Genesis 1:29, God says to Adam and Eve: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you.”
Unsurprisingly, the Adventists of Loma Linda, California, take this seriously and avoid meat altogether. Most centenarians of Sardinia, Okinawa and Nicoya have done that as well for most of their lives, primarily because they often didn’t have any access to meat to start with.
Durum wheat (Sardinia), sweet potato (Okinawa), and maize (Nicoya) did the trick for them.
It can work for you as well:
#1. Eat four to six vegetable servings daily.
#2. Limit intake of meat. No portion of meat larger than a deck of cards – and only twice a week.
#3. Showcase fruits and vegetables. Hide the M&Ms but showcase the fruit.
#4. Lead with beans. “Beans are a cornerstone of each of the Blue Zone diets,” writes Buettner. “Make beans – or tofu – the centerpiece of lunches and dinners.”
#5. Eat nuts every day.
#6. Stock up. So as to switch from snacks to nuts, the best way is to always have some nuts around.
Lesson Four: Grapes of Life
Or: Drink red wine (in moderation)
Emphasis on the parenthesis above: consistency and moderation (as Aristotle knew already) are key. A glass of red wine or sake with friends or with each meal – no more than one a day – is more than “not bad;” it’s actually great for both your health and longevity.
#1. Buy a case of high-quality red wine. For example, the Sardinians drink Cannonau in their Blue Zone. #2. Treat yourself to a “Happy Hour.” “Set up yours to include a glass of wine, nuts as an appetizer, and a gathering of friends or time with a spouse.”
#3. Take it easy. A serving or two per day is the most you’re allowed to; everything more is detrimental to your health.
Lesson Five: Purpose Now
Or: Take time to see the big picture
Some seventy years ago, in the midst of the darkest stage of recent history (the Holocaust), Viktor Frankl discovered that the search for meaning makes life worthwhile.
Okinawans seem to have known this since time immemorial – they call it ikigai which, loosely translated corresponds to the French “raison d’etre,” a reason for being.
Literally, ikigai can be translated as “the thing that you live for” and bears pretty much the same connotations as the Nicoyans plan de vida, a life plan.
Buettner translates both more precisely with a very profound phrase: “why I wake up in the morning.”
Without an answer to that question, there’s a chance that you’ll spend at least ten years fewer on this planet that the Blue Zones inhabitants.
Here’s what you can do to change that:
#1. Craft a personal mission statement. It is not only for a CV: answer the question “Why do you get up in the morning?” so that you get up with a purpose every day.
#2. Find a partner. Humans are social animals, and a purpose not communicated with someone is a purpose barely existent.
#3. Learn something new. Taking up a musical instrument or learning a new language is the best way to preserve your mental sharpness.
Lesson Six: Down Shift
Or: Take time to relieve stress
They don’t call it the silent killer for no reason: stress is everything you don’t need in your life.
“People who’ve made it to 100 seem to exude a sense of sublime serenity,” writes Dan Buettner. “Part of it is that their bodies naturally slow down as they have aged, but they’re also wise enough to know that many of life’s most precious moments pass us by if we’re lurching blindly toward some goal.”
Meditation, mindfulness, yoga – do what you can but whatever you do, slow down to the speed of life as soon as you can: tortoises live longer than you for a reason.
Here’s Buettner’s (and the Blue Zones’) quick guide to stress reduction:
#1. Reduce the noise. Television, podcasts, the Internet – we know they take up a big portion of your time; apparently, you should read that sentence literally, because minimizing time spent with them lengthens life twofold.
#2. Be early. Plan to arrive 15 minutes early wherever you go. This minimizes stress and allows you to slow down.
#3. Meditate. At least 10 minutes a day – and, if possible, even 30. But do meditate.
Lesson Seven: Belong
Or: Participate in a spiritual community
Centenarians in the Blue Zones seem to share another thing between them: faith.
They believe in many different things, and they do so in many different manners; and, apparently, it doesn’t even matter if you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu; what does matter is that you believe and belong to a strong religious community.
“The simple act of worship,” writes Buettner, “is one of those subtly powerful habits that seems to improve your chances of having more good years.”
Here are three strategies on how to achieve this:
#1. Be more involved. Take a more active role in the organization you are already a member of.
#2. Explore a new tradition. “If you don’t have a particular religious faith,” writes Buettner, “commit to trying a new faith community.” It doesn’t even have to do a lot with god: Unitarian Universalism, for example, is a liberal religion which is characterized as a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
#3. Just go. Whatever you choose, however, don’t be a believer in the solitude of your thoughts; just go to religious services and do so with an open mind.
Lesson Eight: Loved Ones First
Or: Make family a priority
“The most successful centenarians we met in the Blue Zones,” informs Dan Buettner, “put their families first. They tended to marry, have children, and build their lives around that core. Their lives were imbued with familial duty, ritual, and a certain emphasis on togetherness.”
And these four tips can help you create your family’s Blue Zone:
#1. Get closer. Building a family is not the same as having a family; create an environment of togetherness within a smaller house.
#2. Establish rituals. One family meal a day and one family vacation a year is the minimum.
#3. Create a family shrine. Choose at least one day a year during which you’ll project photographs of your family on the wall and discuss them with your loved ones.
#4. Put family first. That’s self-explanatory, but it seems that in the 21st century, it just needs to be repeated over and over again.
Lesson Nine: Right Tribe
Or: Be surrounded by those who share Blue Zone values
You know what they say: your immediate surroundings make a large part of who you are – even more than your family.
That’s why finding your tribe is perhaps “the most powerful thing you can do to change your lifestyle for the better.”
A thorn between roses starts smelling better, but a rose between thorns withers away.
So, build up the Inner Circle of your Blue Zone using these three strategies:
#1. Identify your inner circle. Find the people who reinforce your good habits and put an X next to those who do the opposite.
#2. Be likable. Grumpy people live shorter.
#3. Create time together. Spend at least 30 minutes a day with members of your inner circle: a meeting, a meal, a brief discussion; after all, these are the very guys you want to take your walking date from lesson one!
Key Lessons from “The Blue Zones”
1. The Blue Zones of the World Are Its Confirmed Longevity Hotspots
2. There Are Five Exceptional Blue Zones on the Earth (and One of Them Is in the USA)
3. These Are the Nine Lessons for Living Longer
The Blue Zones of the World Are Its Confirmed Longevity Hotspots
Look “blue zone” up on Wikipedia, and you’ll find Dan Buettner’s name in its very definition.
And that’s because “Blue Zones are regions of the world where Dan Buettner claims people live much longer than average.”
There Are Five Exceptional Blue Zones on the Earth (and One of Them Is in the USA)
According to Dan Buettner, there are five blue zones on our planet:
#1. Sardinia, Italy;
#2. Okinawa, Japan;
#3. Loma Linda, California;
#4. Nicoya, Costa Rica; and
#5. Icaria, Greece.
These Are the Nine Lessons for Living Longer
After studying the life habits of the people from these five blue zones, Dan Buettner distilled nine lessons for living longer, i.e., habits which would probably add years to your life and life to your years.
These are the Blue Zones activities which you should mimic:
#1. Moderate and regular physical activity;
#2. Hari hachi bu: eating up to when you’re 80% full;
#3. Avoiding meat and processed food in favor of plants;
#4. Drinking red wine (in moderation);
#5. Having a purpose in life, or: knowing why you get up in the morning;
#6. Taking time to relieve stress;
#7. Participating in a spiritual community;
#8. Putting your family first; and
#9. Surrounding yourself with the right tribe of people.
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The Blue Zones QuotesMany age-related diseases are caused by an immune system out of balance. Click To Tweet I found that when you are depressed, that’s when you do something for somebody else. Click To Tweet A stranger is a friend we haven’t met yet. Click To Tweet Eat until you are 80 percent full. Click To Tweet Purpose and love are essential ingredients in all Blue Zone recipes for longevity. Click To Tweet
Ever since its publication, The Blue Zones is a longevity and aging nutrition bestseller, almost always among the top ten books in these categories on Amazon.
For a reason: it’s research-based, it’s science-based, and it’s actionable!
Now, what more can one ask for?