What Are Blue Zones? How to Live a Longer & Healthier Life

Key Points:

  • Blue zones are locations across the globe where populations live significantly longer than the rest of the world. Researchers have found that the key elements that create blue zones are factors like diet, lifestyle, and community-oriented living.
  • There are five official blue zones, most of them on islands and two located in the Mediterranean. Blue zone cultures are somewhat isolated from the rest of the world — relying on their own gardens, farms, and local communities to provide for their needs.
  • One important thing we can learn from blue zones is that a sense of purpose can dramatically increase our lifespan and quality of life. Many blue zone communities are known for calming and purpose-driven practices like religion, meditation, and respect for the community.

What if a perfect balance of diet, lifestyle, and community could dramatically increase your life expectancy? Thanks to National Geographic researcher Dan Buettner, we’re not too far from understanding exactly what this perfect storm looks like.

After observing countless cultures across the globe, Buettner coined the term “blue zones,” indicating a handful of locations around the world where people live the longest and happiest. Not only are some residents of these locations well over one hundred years old, but they enjoy exceptional quality of life standards — often spending their days exercising in groups, socializing with friends, eating well, and enjoying leisurely habits.

Let’s explore the five blue zones and the diet, lifestyle, and cultural factors that make them the ideal place to grow old happily and healthily.

Table of Contents:

What Are Blue Zones?

A blue zone is a term used to describe locations across the globe that have overall better life expectancy, quality of life, and less disease. Currently, there are five recognized blue zones — and nine key factors required for a location to be considered a blue zone.

Key Factors That Create Blue Zones

In order to be considered a blue zone, a location must excel in nine key factors. These are called the power of nine:

  1. Natural movement — Walking, yoga, recreational sports, gardening, community exercise, and housework.
  2. A sense of purpose — A deep understanding of yourself and your mission on earth, inside or outside of your career.
  3. Stress management techniques — Whether in the form of prayer, reflection, meditation, or walks with friends, people who live in blue zones have natural ways to cope with stress.
  4. Smaller meals — Otherwise called the “80 percent rule,” this principle encourages people to stop eating when they’re mostly (but not totally) full. People who live in blue zones also typically eat more in the morning and afternoon and less at dinner.
  5. A plant-centered diet — While many blue zone communities do eat meat, they consume more plant-based foods than other cultures. It’s also worth noting that many blue zones eat veggies as their first meal course, which has been shown to dramatically reduce blood sugar spikes.
  6. Moderate consumption of alcohol — The consumption of alcohol in general isn’t looked kindly upon by the medical community these days. Recent studies have mixed reviews on its benefits (and it certainly shouldn’t be consumed by people with sensitivities or liver issues). But blue zones show us that alcohol in moderation (preferably red wine) can be helpful, especially when it builds community.
  7. Community — All blue zones have a strong sense of community, often in a religious context. The Loma Linda, California blue zone is a good example of this, as it’s a community of Seventh-Day Adventists.
  8. A strong sense of family — Many blue zone populations live in diverse communities and homes, with elderly grandparents and young children often mingling and living under the same roof. Divorce rates are low and families spend intentional time together.
  9. Healthy social circles — You’re more likely to work out if your best friends do. Or, if your significant other is a healthy eater, you’re more likely to make better food choices. People who live in blue zones have strong circles and friendships with other healthy people.

These are the key factors used to determine blue zones around the world. However, it’s important to remember that we’re still studying these cultures — and there’s a lot yet to learn about their diets, lifestyles, and communities.

Another key factor not part of this “power of nine” is location. Many blue zones are isolated and still live with old-world traditions — meaning, a better relationship with food, exercise, and work. Their food is typically sourced from their own homes where they raise livestock and grow vegetables.

Blue Zones in the World

To better visualize the different blue zones, it’s helpful to start with a blue zone map. You can also explore our breakdown of each of the five blue zones — covering diet, lifestyle, and community practices.

Blue Zones Map

Okinawa, Japan

This beautiful Japanese island was the first location that inspired the idea behind blue zones. With a thriving and healthy elderly population, Okinawans have a strong sense of purpose and family. Women, particularly, have an impressive lifespan, expected to reach almost 90 years of age on average.

Blue Zone Diet

In Okinawa, diets are primarily plant-based with an emphasis on sweet potatoes and legumes. They also consume a fair amount of rice, grains, and other vegetables. Meat (likely pork or seafood) is consumed in small amounts.

Blue Zone Lifestyle

Gentle movement is a common part of everyday life in Okinawa. Most people live in walk-friendly communities and practice Radio Taiso, a simple form of calisthenics. Gardening is also a common hobby for residents of Okinawa and an easy source of food.

Blue Zone Community

There’s a strong sense of purpose and family in Okinawa. Most elderly people enjoy the company of young adults and their core friend groups. Recent studies further explain why community is so important to longevity — suggesting that socially integrated women had a 10% longer lifespan than those who self-isolate.

Sardinia, Italy

The Mediterranean has long been known for its ability to support a healthy human lifespan — and Sardinia, Italy is no exception. The slow-paced island life, accessible healthy food, and robust community create a powerful balance that supports longevity (proven by the dozens of centenarians who live there).

Blue Zone Diet

Locals of Sardinia, Italy enjoy plenty of whole grains (usually barley), A2 dairy from sheep and goats, and plenty of veggies. They also eat some meat, fish, legumes, added fats, and enjoy a glass of wine among friends and lively conversation.

Blue Zone Lifestyle

The landscape of Sardinia is quite steep and requires a good cardiovascular workout just to get around. Cycling, walking, and gardening are all common pastimes.

Blue Zone Community

Because Sardinia is a small island, residents depend on each other for a strong sense of community and partnership. There’s a large emphasis on family, solidarity, and tradition.

Ikaria, Greece

As a small island in Greece, Ikarians have mastered their isolated and deeply cultural lifestyle. Many families raise their own livestock, keep year-round gardens for fresh produce, and eat seasonally.

Blue Zone Diet

In Ikaria, the typical diet is a diverse mix of potatoes, legumes, greens, fish, pasta, and wine — all depending on the season. They’re also known for their olive oil and eat a healthy dose of fresh fruits.

Blue Zone Lifestyle

Local Ikarians may travel by bus, ferry, or occasional car, but more often they walk. The island of Ikaria is fairly steep and mountainous, so an everyday walk is enough to get blood pumping. They also participate in gardening, house chores, and raising their livestock. Stress relief often comes in the form of afternoon naps, an Ikarian staple.

Blue Zone Community

Ikaria, Greece is another fairly isolated location, so a strong sense of community and social commitment is encouraged from a young age. Neighbors grow up around each other — and families are well-connected.

Loma Linda, California

Located right outside of San Bernadino is a city called Loma Linda in California. By far, it’s the most unique blue zone since it’s not an island, nor is it steeped in hundreds of years worth of established culture and tradition. Loma Linda is primarily settled by a group of Seventh-Day Adventists (a denomination of Christianity), who enjoy plant-based foods and regular exercise.

Blue Zone Diet

One of the many benefits of California living is regular access to fresh and local fruits. The Seventh-Day Adventists who live in Loma Linda enjoy a primarily vegetarian diet, with some meats, fish, and dairy added in on occasion. They also enjoy legumes, soy, oats, and regularly snack on nuts.

Blue Zone Lifestyle

People in Loma Linda take regular walks outside, as staying healthy and active is an important principle in the Seventh-Day Adventist faith. Their eating habits are similar to other blue zones, where large meals are encouraged in the morning and smaller meals are consumed at night.

Blue Zone Community

For the Seventh-Day Adventists, a strong community is built into their culture and faith structure. They enjoy regular volunteer work, social gatherings, and church.

Nicoya, Costa Rica

Similar to other blue zones, Nicoya, Costa Rica is a culture that honors their elderly population. Extended families typically live together and enjoy all the benefits of tropical life that make outside exercise and fresh produce easier to access.

Blue Zone Diet

The typical diet in Nicoya consists of squash, beans, and corn (often prepared by soaking to break down hard-to-digest proteins and make the mineral content of these foods more bioavailable). They also consume a fair amount of fresh dairy, usually from goats. Most local food comes from gardens and raised livestock and they have very little access to processed foods. The water in Nicoya is also well-known for its potent mineral content (calcium and magnesium).

Blue Zone Lifestyle

In the rich culture of Costa Rica, the elderly are honored and typically live with their extended family. A sense of purpose and tradition is expected and most people from Nicoya have a robust social network. Healthy and delicious recipes are passed down through generations.

Blue Zone Community

Gentle exercise is part of the everyday routine in Costa Rica. Farming, foraging, gardening, fishing, and walking with others in the community are all common activities.

The Connection Between Blue Zones and Cellular Health

Everyone wants to live a long and symptom-free life. The benefit of understanding blue zones is that we can learn from the diets, lifestyles, and experiences of cultures that seem to have developed a resilience against aging and disease.

One thing they all have in common? Cellular health.

Whether it’s the antioxidants in plant-based foods, fatty acids in locally sourced olive oil and fish, or healthy amounts of raw dairy (for rich cell-nourishing minerals), it’s clear that the diets and lifestyle of blue zone communities contribute heavily to good cellular health. Living in a more traditional way that connects people to each other and the nature around them also dramatically reduces exposure to toxins and chemicals that plague so many of us in modernized environments.

Reduced toxins + increased nutrients + vibrant social communities = happy cells and happy people.

Can’t Move to a Blue Zone?

The one downside of blue zones? They aren’t exactly accessible to everyone.

Most of us can’t drop everything to move to an island on the Mediterranean or a small town in California (as much as we’d like to). But there are other powerful ways we can harness our cells to encourage slow aging.

One of them is phospholipids — an easy addition to your everyday supplement routine.

BodyBio PC is a phospholipid complex that targets aging right at the cell. Since phospholipids are building blocks to healthy cell membranes, they’re essential to retaining good health as you age (consider them blue zone approved).

Learn About the Future of Aging + The Role of BodyBio PC

References

Roundtable on Population Health Improvement; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Institute of Medicine. (2015). Business Engagement in Building Healthy Communities: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK298903/

Imai, S., Fukui, M., & Kajiyama, S. (2014). Effect of eating vegetables before carbohydrates on glucose excursions in patients with type 2 diabetes. Journal of clinical biochemistry and nutrition, 54(1), 7–11. https://doi.org/10.3164/jcbn.13-67

Trudel-Fitzgerald, C., Zevon, E. S., Kawachi, I., Tucker-Seeley, R. D., Grodstein, F., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2020). The Prospective Association of Social Integration With Life Span and Exceptional Longevity in Women. The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences, 75(10), 2132–2141. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbz116

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