What can the Blue Zones teach us about getting through the pandemic in better health?
When we were told to shelter in place during quarantine, it was a request that I secretly welcomed. For me, enjoying my home, cooking with my family, eating nutritiously, walking outdoors and appreciating my health and safety were things I coveted. Who knew that I was practicing most of the lifestyle traits enjoyed regularly around the globe in the Blue Zones — the places where longevity rules?
The Blue Zones are areas of the world where centenarians (those who live to 100 years of age or more) and their friends and relatives live long, productive lives with less stress, fewer incidents of dementia and disease and more connection. Akin to the people of the Mediterranean, the residents of Blue Zones in places like the Greek island of Ikaria, Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, Costa Rica’s Nicola Peninsula and Loma Linda in California, didn’t collectively create a fad diet or lifestyle book. They relied on each other’s support, natural physical activity (like walking or hiking) and foods that were seasonally available to them with consideration given to the planet and the people on it.
Nick Buettner, vice president of Blue Zones, told TODAY that “the broader point of what we’re doing with our Blue Zone projects is to show how we can create our environments so that making healthier choices are easier and unavoidable.” Buettner explained that “Americans tend to focus on diet and exercise, but the power of the Blue Zones goes beyond something that you have to ‘do’— it’s about how you set up your surroundings.” He explained that during COVID-19, we’re spending more time at home in our kitchens with our families. “If you have bags of chips on your counter, you’re more likely to grab them, but if you replace that with a bowl of fruit, it’ll be a healthier snack that’s easy to reach for.”
So, what other everyday practices can we learn from the Blue Zone regions that can protect our health, especially as we emerge from the pandemic? Here six healthy habits to borrow:
Studies have shown that individuals with chronic diseases are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, particularly those with obesity and pulmonary disease. It’s no surprise that in Blue Zones, these conditions exist to a much lesser extent, often related to their dietary preferences and exercise habits. Meats and sweets are celebratory, not staples and desserts are consumed on occasion, not as an after-dinner expectation. By picking mostly plants and plant proteins, those in Blue Zones naturally got their fill of disease-fighting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients.
As just one example, beans make a regular appearance in Blue Zone meals and Americans took a page from the Blue Zone playbook during the pandemic. Bean consumption increased during the pandemic and for good reason: Beans are versatile, easy to fit into any meal or snack, their soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol, and beans are also inexpensive and easy to store so stocking our pantry shelves kept us from needing to shop frequently.
Science has shown us that having a healthy gut may bring benefits beyond calming our digestive issues since there is a strong connection between your health and the trillions of microrganisms that live within your body. These organisms help us fight infection and reduce risks of preventable diseases. Since plant-based foods take up 90 to 100% of the real estate on the plates in Blue Zone households, immune supporting foods like fruits, vegetables, tubers, nuts, beans and whole grains provide immune supporting fuel to help your healthy bacteria flourish.
Blue Zone residents often grow their own fruits and vegetables. By nurturing and sharing a home-grown garden, you can save money, be generous by sharing with others and you can savor the flavor and benefits of fresh produce. Research shows that gardening can boost your mood and well-being while also providing a physical activity that’s rewarding and productive. Buettner pointed out that in "Blue Zone spots around the world, people enjoyed gardening as a way to stretch, move and do natural low impact activity as they aged; they didn’t need to run marathons to stay fit.”
In Blue Zones, people eat the recipes of their ancestors and are surrounded by community food traditions. Their dishes are based upon ingredients that are less expensive and accessible and easy to store, prepare and share. Connecting at the table, a rare pre-COVID-19 event for many busy families, became a regular practice during quarantine. These days we can still enjoy meals together while social distancing by exchanging recipes, doing a cook-along via video or enjoying meals outdoors.
While regular Zoom happy hours brought some of us together, reports have shown a dramatic increase in alcohol intake during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also saw a greater amount of alcohol use by those with anxiety, depression and mental disorders. In Blue Zones, alcohol does plays a role in many locations, but wine, particularly red wine, is consumed along with meals and in moderation. (If you don’t drink at all, there’s no need to start.) The Blue Zone beverages of choice include mostly water, coffee and tea, while limiting sugary soft drinks.
Perhaps an even more essential foundation that rests under diet and exercise habits, is that these people are often surrounded by family and community throughout their lives, and it is their attitudes about life itself that may have inspired them to follow certain behaviors.
Perhaps Buettner said it all when he pointed out, “Longevity is never something Blue Zone residents pursued — it was ensued.” In other words, adopting healthier lifestyle habits now could impact the lives of our friends and families for generations.