The Blue Zones

FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Chit U. Juan - The Philippine Star

You must have heard of the book about the Blue Zone, places in the world where people live to a hundred and have lower rates of chronic disease. Well, it is now in Netflix and I came across it the other day. It has just five episodes you can binge in one evening or on a slow Sunday afternoon. And the author narrates what he has studied since 2009 about people who live longer, disease-free.

These communities or cities of people have many things in common – their lifestyles follow the same “rules” and in one recent development, cities or towns and a city-state which is Singapore actually manufactured or made their own Blue Zone, consciously adapting what the other towns did.

What practices or lifestyle do they have in common?

As summarized by Katie McCallum in a recent publication, here are the tips:

1. Don’t stress. Or maybe choose your stress. Have just enough stress to exercise your heart and lungs like physical stress that is controlled and is not prolonged. Even a little mental exercise is good, but again not prolonged stress which breaks the body down.

2. Eat a plant-based diet. They eat mostly fruits and vegetables, and stay away from meat and animal products.

3. Move your body. It does not mean going to the gym but just doing chores at home, gardening, puttering around and accomplishing simple tasks that require movement.

4. Know your sense of purpose. The Japanese call it “Ikigai.”

5. Connect with community.

6. Put family (whether biological or chosen) first.

7. Choose social circles that support healthy behavior.

8. Eat only until you are 80 percent full (the Japanese call it hara, hachi bu).

9. Drink alcohol in moderation (a little red wine here and there).

What I found so interesting is choosing social circles because we often see a lot of people but many do not keep a small circle of friends who are of the same belief system – they also form similar habits and you soon feel like “peas in a pod.” You probably enjoy eating together, travelling together and even learning together.

Volunteering is also a healthy habit. The studies show that people who volunteer for causes find more meaning in life and this sense of purpose extends life.

Living near family is also key. In Singapore, to create a Blue Zone, the government gave incentives for living near family members (i.e. adult children living near parents can get assistance from the state).

It encourages parents NOT to live in retirement homes, but to live with the clan (very common in the Philippines) so people take turns taking care of them.

From my own experience, my mother passed at 95 years old and looking back, she did live close to me, she had no stress and when she was younger was actively driving around and had a circle of friends. She fulfilled all the tips of author Dan Buettner, except the alcohol part as she hardly took wine or any spirits. But she ate mostly fish and vegetables and would serve meat only on special occasions (a lechon or a pot roast was special). She always had family around as her dining table was the family magnet. Everyday, a grandchild would visit to have breakfast or lunch, as she was easy to get to. Even when she lost her sight, family would come and visit and eat with her. Or sometimes just chat over coffee or snacks.

My father’s sister had the same diet – fish and vegetables – and also had hobbies like embroidery, beading throw pillows and other crafts. She lived to her 90s and would always look forward to eating with family, especially her grandchildren. She had no stress at all, except the occasional discussion of family issues which were always resolved quickly.

In the documentary, there was a man who had cancer who was given just a few months to live yet extended his life just by changing his environment – he started a vineyard, planted grapes for his wife to harvest, but since he lived longer, they soon enjoyed their wine together.

We can all change our environment if we wanted to. Read the book or watch the movie and you will soon realize how changing a few habits can lead to a longer life to enjoy your family.

In one Blue Zone they also showed how practicing anything spiritual two times a week helps in extending lives.

Sometimes, we all have to stop and think why we are still in the so-called “rat race.” Is it to leave fortunes for our children and grandchildren? Is it for fame and glory? Review your sense of purpose. Review the “whys” of your life. You may be surprised at the answers you get.

Then start with changing a few habits. Eating less meat and rice is easy. Eating until we are only 80 percent full is another easy task. All it takes is to be mindful.

If we are ready to do the other tips, the Universe will conspire and help us. Check who among your friends have the same set of beliefs and start a lunch habit or a meal shared anytime during the week. If you find the right group, you can also travel together on short trips, then longer adventures. Find a hobby or sport you can also enjoy together.

And of course, it is easy to form communities. We start with connecting with family, or volunteering for a cause and maybe even working for the church or community center. Do something away from work and you may just be a happier person. Not social media but through real social occasions because we have to connect to people.

And stop going with negative people. Avoid the ranters, the complainers and those who still have to find their purpose. Work towards creating your own Blue Zone.

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