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5 healthful diet and exercise takeaways from the blue zone regions

Have you heard of blue zones? Blue zones refer to five well-studied communities across the world including Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Ikaria in Greece and Loma Linda here in California. According to longevity researchers, people residing in these regions appear to be living longer, happier and healthier lives.

In fact, those inhabiting blue zones are 10 times more likely to live 100 years compared to people in the United States, on average, and experience fewer health problems. The term “blue zones” first appeared in the early 2000s when researchers were studying the health outcomes and documented longevity of those living in these communities, including fewer chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, compared to the rest of the world.

While each blue zone is uniquely different, all blue zones appear to have certain lifestyle factors in common that are leading to an additional decade of healthy life. Here are ways to incorporate blue zone habits into your lifestyle to reap its benefits:

Focus on Moving More

Physical activity in blue zones is more about daily movement than scheduled workouts. Because they have comparatively fewer modern conveniences, blue zone residents rack up more physical activity in activities of daily living such as housework, gardening and transportation. Simple ways to build in more movement include taking stairs instead of elevators, sitting on the floor instead of a chair, standing or walking during phone calls and biking or walking to run nearby errands instead of hopping in the car.

Track and Limit Screen Time

Excess screen time, including time spent on smartphones scrolling social media, can contribute to a sedentary lifestyle. We can actually use technology to our advantage to help reduce screen time and move more. Use smartphone screen-time-limiting apps, either available in the phone’s settings or via download, to track and limit screen time. Plus, step-counter apps can be used to track physical activity and set fitness goals.

Eat More Plants

In blue zones, about 90 percent of the traditional diets come from plant-based foods such as grains, beans, root vegetables, green vegetables, fruit and nuts. Meat, dairy, sweet drinks and commercially prepared foods are rarely consumed. A likely reason that Loma Linda, California is a blue zone is because it has a large population of people who are Seventh-Day Adventists and are predominantly vegetarian, excluding or limiting animal products and alcohol. Eating more plant-based meals has numerous health and longevity benefits.

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Limit Highly Processed Foods

The obvious disadvantages of regularly consuming highly processed foods is increased intake of fat, sugar, sodium and calories and inadequate intake of fiber and essential micronutrients and antioxidants. However, it’s important to point out that those living in blue zones likely benefit from not just the better nutrition of eating plant-based whole foods, but additional physical and mental health advantages from preparing meals from scratch. The labor from gardening and cooking contributes to an overall more active lifestyle. At the same time, a higher level of involvement in the growing and production of food may offer emotional benefits related to self-sufficiency and productivity.

Prioritize Time with Family and Community

Finally, those living in blue zones report a high level of social connectedness providing a sense of purpose, belonging and lower stress levels. Engaging in activities that build community and connection like family meals, volunteer work, hobby-related groups, neighborhood gatherings and religious or spiritual organizations can boost well-being when living outside the blue zones.

LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian, providing nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and organizations. She can be reached by email at RD@halfacup.com.

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