Aging Well in a Blue Zone
Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and Icaria in Greece. What do these locations have in common? You probably know — if you have dialed in to the notion of Blue Zones. Researchers have found that the people of these places tend to have exceptionally long lives and to be unusually healthy in their old age. Author and activist Dan Buettner participated in some of the studies that identified and examined the characteristics of these populations and wrote about them, their diets, social patterns and ways of life in his 2009 book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. What a great idea, and an obvious resource for those of us who wish to live long and well. Even better, Buettner has developed projects and staff to facilitate the introduction of the Blue Zone principles to select areas in the U.S. But wait!, as infomercials say: There’s more! East Hawai`i and North Hawai`i (centered on Hilo and Waimea, respectively) have been chosen to be part of this effort to extend healthy longevity on a community-wide basis. The word of this opportunity has been spreading in the media (regular and social) mostly by the primary sponsor in the Islands, HMSA. Volunteers are getting organized, meetings are being held and points of influence identified (e.g., schools, faith-based organizations, restaurants, grocery stores….). The Blue Zone suggestions are logical and varied, so that the ones that appeal to each of us make for an easy introduction to the whole range of possibilities. It can benefit all of us to learn more about the project in the communities we frequent and to help ourselves by stepping up to choices for living well as long as possible.
Last month this column touched on the importance of keeping active by muscle-powering ourselves around. In his more recent book Dan Buettner includes recipes based on the dietary habits of those living in Blue Zones as well as some very specific suggestions for increasing movement (considerable physical activity being part of the typical life of Blue Zone residents), including one that struck me as unusual: ditch the TV remote so you have to get up and walk to your set to change channels. That’s one that I doubt many people will adopt, but it highlights the importance of even small changes in increasing activity levels on a frequent basis. On the other end of the range of possibilities, I recently talked with a neighbor who has taken up roller derby as part of her fitness regimen. Again, probably not many will follow that route to fitness, but she is pleased to notice the positive changes resulting from her workouts. Importantly, she came to this additional activity from a solid, consistent level of exercise. In between these choices are a wide range of possibilities for us. Recent research documents the adverse effects of sitting and this common part of our work and relaxation times turns out to be much more detrimental than one might think. Negative consequences to our backs, internal organs and mental acuity are only part of the damage done by too much sitting. Searching the internet for something like, “health effects of sitting” leads to information that will definitely make you want to get out of your chair and move!
Advocates of increasing our levels of activity have differing views, some suggesting easing into a pattern gradually while others call for a total, intense immersion. A book by a retired attorney and his physician present both viewpoints. Chris Crowley is a jump-right-in kind of guy, strongly pushing starting right now with going to the gym, getting seriously aerobic four days a week and working (again, seriously) with weights two other days. He’s a very motivational writer and speaker, fervent and funny. His co-author, Dr. Lodge, is considerably more open to a gradual approach, saying more recently that as long as your activity gets you to sweat on a regular basis, you’re helping yourself to reverse the decay that accounts for 70% of the aging process.
Both approaches have advantages, though I personally have had more success with intentional habit changes tending toward the gradual end of the spectrum, particularly when it comes to adding a desirable pattern. This is perhaps especially true with natural movement: looking for chances to, say, park in the center of town and walk to the post office and the other places you need to go rather than to get in your car and drive to each one, will remind you of the advantages of fresh air, greeting friends, not having to back out of several parking spots, and it will, almost surely, feel so good that you’ll do it again, and begin to look for other opportunities to stretch your legs. This cascade effect, where a small trickle of activity is rewarding enough to lead to a fuller flow can apply to any sort of activity that appeals to you. Aspiring to a greater engagement with investing in our well-being works best when we tell our friends and family about our plans and recruit them to join us. Announcing a plan makes it less likely we’ll back out of it if we temporarily lose motivation, and the involvement of others in our changes provides mutual support and encouragement. If we commit to meet others for a morning walk, we’re much more likely to show up. And after all, showing up is one of the essentials for living well as long as possible.
©Hugh Montgomery, PhD
 See hawaii.bluezonesproject.com
| The Blue Zones Solution: eating and living like the world’s healthiest people. Dan Buettner. National Geographic, 2015|
 Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy – Until You’re 80 and Beyond. Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge, M.D. Workman Publishing, 2007.