Blue Zone Living

I'm about a month into my goals and making steady progress. I plan on sharing an update next week about my January Tending List and also share what I have planned for February as far as those baby steps go. But I wanted to take a post specifically to explain the Blue Zone Living Challenge, which appears both on my 2021 goals list as well as my 101 in 1001 list.

The blue zones are just areas that have been studied as having the longest living and healthiest populations. They have very similar factors, too similar to be coincidence. So the scientists created a 4 week challenge to start you on your way of becoming like those societies and adopting their best habits, thereby increasing your health, happiness, and longevity. It's very interesting!

I'm not doing the 4 week challenge exactly as indicated because I already do a lot of the main parts. I'm going to pick the things from each week that I haven't done and try to incorporate those into my daily routines, but I'm otherwise just going to keep on trying new things and adding things all year long into my lifestyle.

The best way to track my progress on this challenge, in the long term, is by focusing on what's referred to as the Power 9, which are the 9 elements that the zones have in common and can be linked to health and longevity.

Power 9

1. Move Naturally. "The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work."

It's no secret that exercise is essential for health. But vigorous exercise can have downsides too in terms of injury and how it effects your heart and joints. It's often best to find more natural ways to add movement into your day. As someone who hates every single form of what's touted as exercise, this idea appeals to me greatly. You're telling me I don't have to run 3 miles on my treadmill 4 times a week? Sign me up! This means obvious things like taking the stairs, parking far from the door, walking the dog, etc. but there are also ways to set up your home to your advantage. Whisking and mixing by hand in the kitchen, gardening with hand tools, even using floor cushions instead of couches for sitting, because you're forced to constantly get up and down. These are changes I can definitely make. I even have a floor cushion!

2. Purpose. "The Okinawans call it 'Ikigai' and the Nicoyans call it 'plan de vida;' for both it translates to 'why I wake up in the morning.' Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy."

Purpose can mean a lot of things, and while one of those things can be your career, it is not the be all end all of giving meaning to your life. Many people find their purpose in their hobbies and passions, in their family, through volunteering, etc. So if your job isn't the reason you get up in the morning, that's okay! Find what drives you. I'm still working out my purpose but I know it has to do with caring for family and sharing knowledge online, through writing and other means (like the podcast.)

3. Down Shift. "Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour."

We all have stress, it's unavoidable. What matters is how we handle it. Stress has a huge affect on health and can manifest in very real physical symptoms like stomach ulcers. So the idea here isn't to get rid of stress altogether (but we should try to minimize it!), but to have a routine every day that will offset some of that stress and allow for moments of calm. We occasionally do happy hour, which doesn't have to include alcohol, but on the days I'm up really early with John, I do take that afternoon nap! I don't think I have something I do every single day though, so I would like to implement that into my schedule.

4. 80% Rule. "'Hara hachi bu' – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day."

So technically there are two parts to this rule. One is eating to only 80% full, since our stomachs take time to reach our brains signaling the 'full' feeling. If we keep eating, we feel like we do on Thanksgiving - overstuffed and uncomfortable. By eating only to 80% and reminding ourselves of that before each meal, we're more likely to consume the ideal amount without having to count calories. This was specifically on my daily tasks list for my January Powersheets. I wasn't perfect at it but I made huge progress.

The second part of this rule is about eating earlier in the day. Some people like to go to bed with something in their stomachs, but it may not be the best for digestion. Personally, if I eat within 3 hours of laying down for bed, I get heartburn. No matter what type of food it is. So I'm careful to eat early! I don't prefer the blue zone method of having breakfast as the biggest meal (eating in the morning makes me so nauseous) so I just have coffee and then lunch around noon and dinner around 5. Both of those meals are roughly the same size.

5. Plant Slant. "Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of a deck of cards."

This is easily the biggest component of blue zone living - vegetarianism. Almost vegan. Most of the blue zones don't consume meat at all, while a few have it just a few times a month. Beans are the main source of protein. Thankfully, I already eat this way so it's not a tough switch for me! I've never eaten meat. I do still eat cheese (not this month, this month is cleanse time) but I have been trying to cut back. But plant based eating is where I excel out of all of these.

6. Wine at 5. "People in all blue zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday."

This is partially because of the stress reduction and social aspect but also because of the way red wine interacts with food. It has some health benefits on its own but can also aid in the absorption of some of the vitamins and minerals in the food. So go ahead with that red wine glass at dinner! Personally, I really dislike red wine so I'm not partaking in this step. Scientists do agree that if you don't drink already, don't start just for the sake of this goal. I only drink for some holidays, the last time was Halloween, and then I drink vodka. I don't plan on changing this up.

7. Right Tribe. "The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created 'moais'–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors."

I'm working on showing appreciation to my friends this year. Ida I've know since 2nd grade, Megan since high school, Betsy for over 10 years now. I love having people from different eras of my life! They made it on to my 21 goals in 2021 because it's important to continue to cultivate those relationships. And part of this is also to release the people who just don't make sense in my tribe. More on that next month.

8. Loved Ones First. "Successful centenarians in the blue zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.) They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes)." 

This is something I already excel at. I've always lived close to my parents and taken care of them, and I now put my mom, John, and Hawkeye before anything and anyone else. John does the same for me and his parents, along with his siblings. The child part doesn't apply but that's a conscious choice we made. Just fur kids. Of course, my mom, John, and Hawkeye all made my 2021 goals list to ensure I keep them at the forefront of my mind, but I can confidently check this number off the list.

9. Belong. "All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy." 

If there are any on this list that I won't work much on, it's this one. I don't have any faith-based beliefs except for one that I'm certain of with every fiber of my being - I loathe organized religion of any kind. So me attending any sort of service regularly will never happen. Perhaps as the podcast continues to grow that can be a sort of substitute, online, belief-based group, but that would be as close as I'm willing to get.

Are you interested in the concept of blue zones or working on your health and longevity this year? Which of the Power 9 are you already skilled at?

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