While the Mediterranean diet tends to get most of the glory in the health landscape—as the best diet of 2023, as a way of life that’s ideal to support heart health and as a terrific option for individuals diagnosed with type 2 diabetes—it’s not the only lifestyle that can help boost longevity.

There are people from a handful of communities across the globe who live just as long, says Dan Buettner, a Miami-based National Geographic fellow and the author of The Blue Zones American Kitchen. As the founder of the Blue Zones project in 2000, he pulled together medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers and epidemiologists to help distill data from the world’s longest-lived people to discover their secrets, Buettner tells EatingWell. The Blue Zones team has built upon those conclusions using evidence-based data for the past 20 years to land on several lifestyle factors that play into longevity.

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It’s not just about genetics, Buettner adds, citing the 1996 Danish Twin Study published in Human Genetics, which established that only about 20% of how long a person lives is based on genetics.

“This leaves the other 80% up to lifestyle and environment. So while genetics can play a role, it’s important for people to focus more on what they can control or change and setting up their routine and environments,” he says.

What Are the Blue Zones, And How Do They Compare to the Average American Lifestyle?

There are five known Blue Zones in the world, and just two of them are considered part of the Mediterranean region:

  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica
  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Loma Linda, California
  • Sardinia, Italy

“In these five regions, the population overwhelmingly lives to be 100 years or older. Not only that, but these folks are living healthier—not just longer—lives,” says Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES, a Warrenton, Virginia-based registered dietitian who helps women stop dieting and find confidence with food. “While folks in the U.S. live to be much older than in previous generations, we certainly are not always in good health at the end of our days.”

So what do these sage folks in the Blue Zones do daily to live longer, healthier and more vibrant lives?

6 Healthy Habits to Help You Live Longer

“You become what you do,” the old adage goes, and daily routines do add up to move the needle toward (or away from) well-being. That said, you shouldn’t take everything into your own hands and abandon expert intel and regular checkups, advises Margaret Fruhbauer, D.O., a board-certified internal medicine doctor with Northwest Community Healthcare in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

“Preventive care such as cancer screenings through the form of colonoscopies, mammograms, pap smears and CT lung cancer screenings can catch diseases earlier. Treating medical conditions, diseases or illnesses early in the development may reduce physical, financial and emotional stress rather than delaying care. Mental health counseling can be extremely beneficial, too,” Fruhbauer says.

1. Don’t “Diet”—Instead, Eat Until You’re Mostly Satisfied

Skip the detox or cleanse, and instead, try to follow “hara hachi bu” as you keep a wide variety of nutritious—and local, if possible—foods in the mix. This mindset is a key factor in Okinawa, where this 2,500-year-old Confucian mantra reminds locals to enjoy meals and snacks until their stomachs are 80% full, rather than counting calories or crash dieting.

“Almost all of the foods consumed by centenarians in the Blue Zones grow within a 10-mile radius of their homes,” Buettner says, but any whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables will serve your health well.

According to a February 2022 meta-analysis in the journal PLOS Medicine, those who “adopt a diet of whole grains, legumes, fish, fruits, vegetables and a handful of nuts, while reducing red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and refined grains” starting at age 20 may be able to add more than 10 years to their life expectancy. Of course we can’t control all health outcomes, and healthy eating isn’t a cure-all, but even if a person started these strategies at 60, the data suggest they might expect to add about 8½ years to their life.

Consider frozen, canned or fermented foods if your fresh faves aren’t accessible. And if you’re not sure where to start, Fruhbauer suggests outsourcing, asking for help and tapping tools that make healthy eating easier, such as local food access organizations or a dietitian affiliated with your doctor’s office.

“There are many meal delivery services that focus on healthy eating. Many of my patients have found that using a slow cooker, Instant Pot or air fryer can make meal prep easier,” she says. Try to make it a team effort: “Incorporating the family into decisions about meal planning and food prep can help.”

2. Limit Added Sugars

Eating less ultra-processed food will likely mean you’ll naturally consume fewer grams of added sugars. Buettner confirms that people in the Blue Zones eat sugar intentionally, not by habit or accident.

“They consume about the same amount of naturally occurring sugars as North Americans do, but only about a fifth as much added sugar—no more than 7 teaspoons of sugar a day,” he says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American adults, on average, consume about 17 teaspoons of added sugar each day, which is more than two to three times the amount recommended. Much of this added sugar hides out in sneaky sources like sugar-sweetened drinks, yogurt, breakfast cereal and plant-based milk, to name a few.

3. Cook More at Home

About 60% of Americans eat dinner out at least once each week, the CDC estimates, and a 2019 survey by the research group Fourth found that 10% eat out four to six times per week.

While those living in the Blue Zones occasionally dine out, they’re known to take pride in making cooking an event. For instance, in some households, meals often come with multiple courses of family recipes made with love.

When cooking more at home, you will have more control over the ingredients you use, you may naturally eat a smaller portion, and you’ll score the stress-relieving benefits of creating something from scratch. Plus, compared to peers who eat out less than one meal per week, individuals who frequently eat meals prepared away from home, two or more meals per day, may have a higher risk of all-cause mortality, shows a 2021 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

4. Share Food With Others

Now that you’ve cooked your meal, you can score even more wellness gains by sharing it with others.

“The world’s longest-lived people chose—or were born into—social circles that supported healthy behaviors,” Buettner says. “Okinawans created ‘moais,’ or 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 too. The social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.”A February 2021 meta-analysis in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that families who share meals tend to consume more fruits, vegetables and health-promoting nutrients. The quality of the nutrition isn’t the only benefit; a March 2017 study in the journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology reports that dining with friends or family is linked with feeling happier, more engaged with the community, more satisfied with life, more trusting of others and laughing more.

Read More: Why Cooking & Eating Together Are as Important for Your Health as the Foods You Eat

5. Incorporate Activity Into Your Daily Life

“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,” Buettner reveals. Things like tending to the garden and keeping up with house and yard work without high-tech tools add in significant daily movement.

Whether you find joy in hiking while listening to your favorite podcast, prefer to tend your vegetable garden or enjoy walking around the neighborhood to chill out after a long day, moving more has been shown to improve mood through the boost of natural “feel-good” neurotransmitters known as endorphins. Cardio, resistance training, yoga, tai chi, Pilates or any activity can bolster balance, increase strength, burn calories and reduce the risk for depression, heart disease and more, according to Fruhbauer. Your local community center may offer fun classes you could attend.

“Many times people will say they don’t have time to exercise,” she says, but you need not commit to 60 or even 30 minutes. In fact, a mere 2-minute walk after a meal can help balance blood sugar. When possible, she says, “I encourage my patients to go for a walk on their lunch breaks or try light weight lifting while watching your favorite TV show in the morning or evening.”

6. Prioritize Sleep and Stress-Relief

Chronic sleep deprivation can increase everything from pain related to migraines and fibromyalgia to risk for heart disease and cancer, Fruhbauer explains.

Buettner adds that a constant or frequent barrage of stressors (ahem, constant phone pings and frightening or tension-filled news updates) can trigger chronic inflammation, which is associated with every major age-related disease.

According to Buettner, many people in the long-lived Blue Zone communities have common routines that help shed stress, such as taking a few moments to remember their ancestors, praying, taking naps and gathering for happy hours. Many of these involve some aspect of social community, which can amplify the benefits.

Fruhbauer suggests scheduling time for self-care, just like you might coordinate an oil change or haircut in advance. She believes that creating a commitment three days per week for even 15 minutes can make an impact over time.

Walking, meditation and breathing are science-backed and free ways to reduce stress and also promote sounder sleep. Taking a break from electronic devices 30 to 60 minutes before snooze time, eating more sleep-supporting foods and following bedroom design tips can all make a big difference in your rest success.

The Bottom Line

The Blue Zones are five regions around the world that are home to the most centenarians, or people who live to age 100 or older. Those who live the longest and strongest usually live in environments that nudge them daily to move, eat nutritious foods (mostly plants) and focus on sleep and stress management.

While the Blue Zones environment is often set up so that the healthy choice is the easy choice, you don’t need to rely on sheer willpower to make these healthy changes for longevity, Buettner says. Instead, try to sprinkle in numerous small changes to your daily routine and environment to promote well-being, and surround yourself with like-minded friends who appreciate joyful movement. Seek out methods of self-care that are easy to slide into your daily routine, and try tweaks for better sleep in one week.

“As you continue to make these small changes over time, you will curate an environment that promotes your health and well-being,” Buettner concludes.

By badas

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