Live Long and Prosper
Last night I watched a new docu-series on Netflix about Blue Zones called Live to 100: Secrets of The Blue Zones.
Blue Zones are regions of the world where people tend to live or have recently lived, longer than average. We’re talking quite significant increases here.
In many cases, these regions also have the highest and consistent concentrations of people living to 100+.
I was already very familiar with Blue Zones and many of the key takeaways from them, but I hadn’t written a piece about it in a while, especially in the context of our current moment and societal design.
So I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore the key takeaways of life in Blue Zones while having a discussion about how this could potentially scale into modern societies and what we might need to do to make it work.
The 4 Key Observations
Firstly, there are some key factors not discussed enough when talking about Blue Zones, and that’s chronic stress and the overall demands of societal design. We’ll get to these as we go.
Below is a visual showcasing key takeaways and themes the filmmaker and his team learned over 20 years of visiting Blue Zones and learning from the people who live there.
The four main themes are:
- Move Naturally
- Eat Wisely
When it comes to natural movement, it was found that people living in these areas typically walk quite a bit. Whether it’s to work, to see friends, to eat, to go to church or some other activity, residents often walk about an hour a day.
For comparison sake, in the West people typically go from their bed, to their kitchen table, to their car, to their work chair, then back to their car, back to their couch, and back to bed. Sure, this is an oversimplification, but the average US citizen takes about 3000 steps a day, compared to 10,000+ in Blue Zones.
Beyond walking, Blue Zone life includes a fair amount of light exercise in the form of gardening, active chores, preparing food, and getting up and down. In some Blue Zones, focused exercise is more of a factor as well, and it’s made available to them simply and easily, with little or no barrier to doing it. It’s often done in community as well.
The bottom line is, they move a lot, and don’t fill their life with a ton of conveniences that stop them from moving. They don’t necessarily make time for exercise, but it’s built into their life. Movement and exercise aren’t viewed as a chore or an inconvenience, but as a way to feel well and thrive.
Human beings are wired to connect. It’s a biological imperative for us. As developing children, the ventral portion of our vagus nerve is not fully developed. In that stage of life, we co-regulate with our caregivers. This means we learn how to feel safety, deal with stressors, big emotions, and self-soothe from our caregivers.
Once that portion of our nervous system is developed, co-regulation remains very important to our wellbeing. The less we are connected with safe faces, voices, and people, the more lonely and disconnected we will feel because we’re communal creatures.
Blue Zones seem to have this part figured out. They regularly stay close to family when possible, make a lot of time for them, and consistently have focused get-togethers where they can connect.
I myself have been struggling with connection. Most of the time, it takes weeks to get a friend to agree to hang out as everyone is always ‘so busy.’ Perhaps this is the norm of modern life now.
In some Blue Zone areas, governments incentivize family members to live close to one another via grants. This is as opposed to sending the elderly off to retirement homes or leaving them to be alone. Singapore is a great example of this.
The bottom line here is, these regions value connection in a deep way, and make it a huge priority in their life – beyond working and career.
They’d rather spend an extra hour or two with their family and friends than stay an extra hour or two working. Here I’m referring to working later than we need to in the West.
Purpose and meaning tend to be a big part of what drives people in Blue Zones. And much of the time, where they find purpose and meaning is simple and impactful.
Whether it be craftsmanship, volunteering, caring for livestock or other forms of work, they find their Plan de Vida or Ikiagi and stick to it.
Unlike in the West, where much of purpose and passion is sold with “making lots of money or else you aren’t manifesting right,” these people live simply and look for what brings them joy and excitement. You can actually see the joy on their faces and in how they move much more than the majority of multi-millionaires and billionaires of the West.
Beyond connecting with their life purpose, they are easygoing. They don’t let stress overtake them and have meaningful ways of unwinding through living slow lives and staying connected to their friends and family.
They build resilience by not letting stress become an overwhelming factor. This is to say, they still have stressors in their life, but their lives are set up to continually build the capacity to healthily move through that stress vs. numbing it out and pushing it down. The ladder is the intelligent response of many of our bodies and minds as we become overwhelmed in the West.
There is also an element of faith, or perhaps meaning and connection to something bigger, that is built into Blue Zone cultures as well. This doesn’t have to mean religion as we see in different regions, but the key is there is a recognition of connection to sacredness, something beyond ourselves, and a semblance of ritual that arises in daily life to sense and feel that.
They don’t mindlessly go to church or engage with faith or a higher consciousness, they do so with deep intention, reverence and attention.
The bottom line, they have a more easygoing and holistic outlook on life. They choose passion and meaning and aren’t chasing excess material gains.
I saved the most controversial for last. Over the last 15 years studying, writing about, and exploring diet, health, and the healing arts, I’ve consistently been shocked by how common it is for people to deeply identify with their chosen diet. Typically, this doesn’t lead to good outcomes.
People often end up being stressed, strict, and judgemental when it comes to food and other people. It doesn’t matter if their Vegan, paleo, high fat, low carb, or carnivore – the behavior permeates the “diet wars” as I call it.
People fight over fad diets and judge one another for their food choices, all without truly seeking to understand various diets and how to do them correctly.
It’s somewhat bizarre that the combination of foods we choose to eat can have such an effect on how we choose to see other people and put them in a negative light often not aligned with the truth.
That said, the vast majority of people who live in Blue Zones are primarily plant-based. That statement alone may ruffle feathers for the reasons I discussed above.
People have become very sensitive about diet. It’s a shadow certainly worthy of reflecting on if this does ruffle a feather or two. (As a side, imagine humans had feathers… or even just one feather… 🤔)
Back to Blue Zone diets, it’s not that they are vegan per se, but that they eat very, very little animal products. Meat makes up anywhere between 1% to 5% of their diet. This is a big difference from the vast majority of the world, including the West, where meat and dairy products can be a large portion of a total diet.
Blue Zone folks aren’t eating fake or mock meat products either. They eat whole food plants in abundance. Beans, legumes, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and well-prepared simple carbs are their go to.
They are eating healthy food they prepare themselves – no processed stuff.
They also aren’t inventing a new fad diet every couple of years to follow. A recent Joe Rogan, Tim Ferris, or Andrew Hubberman podcast episode promoting a diet type as “the answer” isn’t a concern for these people. They look at their traditions and what has worked for centuries, and light-heartedly engage with it.
Beyond primarily plant-based diets, Blue Zones consume fewer calories compared to the West, and they eat slowly. Eating for them isn’t something they do in a rush, but something they take time to enjoy with friends and family. Slower eating also means they eat less and digest better because they are more present and attentive to their food, environment, and are socially connected.
In this way, they’re signalling to their nervous system “I’m connected, safe, and not stressed, it’s OK to digest.”
Watching the series reminded me of my friend’s upcoming docu-series called Healing Kitchen: Let Food Be Thy Medicine. It’s a hard-hitting, transformative – and FREE – documentary series exploring the world’s most promising medicinal foods and how they can be used to prevent and heal disease. It also teaches viewers how to eat medicinal and healthy diets simply. I highly recommend checking it out while it’s available for free.
As somebody who’s primarily eaten whole food plant-based for the last 15 years in a light-hearted manner, I’ve heard every uneducated misconception, myth, or judgement about plant-based eating. And you bet I’ve heard nonsensical judgements about other diet types as well.
I truly think people can be healthy eating different diet types. It mostly comes down to food quality, quantity, balance, stress management, and lifestyle – but that’s a bigger discussion.
For me, 15 years ago I became the observer and scientist of my own experience, body and diet. I found what felt good for me and I was honest with myself about it. It chose a holistic approach to my health. I wound up eating plant-based diet and changed my lifestyle to move more, focus on wellness, be in nature, be more connected, and be less stressed. This led me to feel more clear-headed, energetic, and spiritually connected. So I roll with it and don’t put needless pressure on myself.
I’m also not in support of elites and billionaires who are pushing for highly processed plant-based foods as a way to ‘save the planet from climate change.’ Fake food is not a replacement for real healthy food, it doesn’t matter what diet type you follow.
The bottom line here, people in Blue Zones are primarily plant-based, they prepare and cook their food using high quality ingredients, they eat slowly, and they eat less. They also don’t stress, judge people, or identify with their diet. This flows along with their general outlook on life.
It’s about lifestyle.
Western philosophy is often driven mainly by the reductionist thinking of the mind. There is very little attention paid to a holistic outlook, including a connection to metaphysics, nature, and the self.
As a result, we tend to look for THE THING that is most impactful, instead of sensing wholeness. Our consciousness has become narrow and not expansive.
The Blue Zones have a total lifestyle with many clues to wellness and longevity, even if it’s not perfect per se. The challenge is, in most of these zones life moves slowly, financial pressures are less, and people don’t have to spend so much time working to afford life.
Interestingly, some Blue Zones are being overtaken by Western ideas, and their longevity trends are declining. What we’re seeing is a decline in the total lifestyle involved in the Blue Zone secrets.
The big question is: are these ideas scalable or possible in modern culture given our fast-paced and stress-filled life? I say sort of.
To one person it might be, while to your neighbour it might not be because they simply don’t have the money, time, or ability to tend to all of these lifestyle factors. The design of our modern world is often disconnected from human wellness and produces class hierarchies by design. Our environments don’t promote health and longevity.
For me, I don’t believe societal design that allows some to be well off at the expense of others is good. We’re disillusioned about the successes of modern life, and I think we can do better.
Implementing life as we see it in Blue Zones can be done in small ways now, but a radical re-design of our society and the pressures that drive it is necessary. The question is, are we comfortable and ready to let go of our old ways?
Our societal design is driven by culture which is driven by consciousness which is driven by our worldview and nervous system. So it’s in these areas where we have to transform in the long run.
To better prepare our minds, creativity and energy for such a change, we have to move from a mindless autopilot story of competition, dominance, and separation to a CONSCIOUS (chosen and felt) story of connection, sacredness, and growth.
This all begins with coming back to a fundamental feeling of safety and wellness in our bodies. Something most of us have lost sight of in the consistent stressors of modern life.
If we do this, individually and collectively, choices around well societal design will become more automatic and obvious.
But in the short term, I believe any one of us can look at the visual chart above and think about ways where we can make improvements to our lifestyle to bring more of those elements into the picture – even if they are very small.
For example, during a wellness summit I spoke at yesterday, I brought up the idea of maintaining connections with friends and family in a meaningful way, regardless of how our ideas or beliefs are different. Often people who see the world differently will argue with or avoid friends and family who think differently, judging them from a distance. This can breed loneliness. To me, it’s more important to have a connection with people than to be isolated or have poor connections because beliefs or ideas don’t line up.
In this way, I think we can improve right now, in this moment, anywhere.