Want to live longer: 9 tips to living a longer, healthier and happier life
The Fountain of Youth: something written about in fictionalised stories where young men and women set out to find the secret water so they’ll never age. While this holy grail of youth doesn’t physically exist anywhere in the world, there are some places on the planet where people are living far longer than the average human.
Curious to see what was making the folks in different parts of the world consistently reach three-digit ages, author and National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner took multiple expeditions to discover the secrets to longevity in these regions. He dubbed the five places as “Blue Zones”, where people were not only living long and healthy lives, but measurably happier ones as well. These places include Okinawa, Japan; Icaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and a section of the community in Loma Linda, California. “From all of our research we have found that there are nine lessons, which we discovered in every Blue Zone in the world,” Buettner says. “We call them the Power 9.”
Going to the gym is certainly beneficial to your health, but lifting heavy weights and running for miles on end won’t actually help you live longer. “The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron or run marathons,” adds Buettner. “Instead, their environments nudge them into moving without thinking about it.” While having cheap petrol is beneficial in the UAE, it leads to fast, intimidating motorways, largely devoid of sidewalks, hindering the ability to simply walk for consistent exercise. Not surprisingly, the UAE suffers one of the world’s highest obesity rates. “Start moving naturally, take multiple trips up and down stairs for laundry, have walking meetings at work, garden and shed some stress doing what you love,” he says. “As you continue to make these small changes over time you will curate an environment that promotes your health and well-being.”
Why do you wake up in the morning? Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy. “Purpose is easier to find when you are younger if you are working in a career you love and taking care of a family, but as you age this purpose may become less clear,” notes Buettner. “Many societies look at retirement as a time to sit around, relax, play golf and do anything but work. In the Blue Zones, the elderly feel a sense of purpose and responsibility to help raise the kids and support the community.” It’s crucial to continue to find new purpose and meaning in life. In fact, Buettner notes that one of the most dangerous years of your life is the year you retire because of a sudden lack of purpose.
We’ve heard it all before: stress will kill you. “Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease,” advises Buettner. “The world’s longest-lived people have routines to shed that stress.” The culture of the UAE actually has a built idea of “downshifting”, which is particularly apparent during Ramadan. The daily prayer and fasting provide that inherent mentality of slowing down and de-stressing, something that should be taken advantage of.
The 80 per cent rule
In a time and area where there is plenty of food to be had, it can be easy to overeat. This can lead to major health problems – in the UAE, 19 per cent of the population is living with diabetes due to poor diet and a lack of exercise. And while making healthier food choices is key, so too is learning how to limit your portions. “‘Hara hachi bu’ is a mantra the Okinawans say before meals as a reminder to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 per cent full,” says Buettner. Often it takes a while for our brains to catch up with our stomachs, so slow and mindful eating is the key to consuming just the right amount of food, ultimately adding years to your life.
Eating healthy, well-balanced meals is a no-brainer when it comes to living longer. But there are particular elements of the Blue Zones’ diets Buettner has discovered that they have in common. “The cornerstone of most centenarian diets? Beans,” he notes. “And they typically eat meat only five times per month.” Unfortunately, places like the UAE have imported many of the West’s junk-food emporiums. Instead, look back to two generations ago when people lived off dried fish and dates, with the occasional bowl of rice or celebratory goat. “Instead of filling your snack drawer with potato chips and candy bars, fill them with nuts and dates,” he adds. “Put a fruit bowl in a central location in your house.”
Socialise at Five
There’s a reason 5pm is often called “happy hour”. Carving out a chunk of the time in your day simply to socialise is one of the key things those living in the Blue Zones do every day. This not only helps you “down shift”, but also helps with finding purpose and feeling part of a group – another secret to longevity.
Feeling a sense of belonging to a group goes hand-in-hand with having a purpose. People should have a place where they can reach out in times of need and also lend support to others and many faith-based groups have this built into their culture. “Attending faith-based services four times per month adds up to 14 years of life expectancy,” notes Buettner. Feeling like you don’t have to take on all of life’s burdens yourself creates a buffer against stress and diseases such as hypertension.
Along with belonging to a group, it’s important to find a group that promotes a healthy way of living. “The world’s longest-lived people chose or were born into social circles that support healthy behaviours,” he adds. Like finding a workout buddy, living around people who eat and move like you do helps when sticking to a healthy way of living in the long term. Setting up an environment that is supportive makes living that lifestyle much easier.
Loved ones come first
In these Blue Zones it’s unheard of for someone to be put into a retirement home because it’s ingrained into these cultures that family takes care of family from birth until death, even if they’re over 100. Long-living societies “put their families first”, says Buettner. “They keep ageing parents and grandparents nearby, commit to a life partner and invest in their children.” You can start implementing this practice and get on the road towards longevity simply by spending time with friends and family, and practising the lifestyles of your ancestors.
Where you can start
Although it may be impossible to achieve every one of these recommendations, you can take the first step towards a longer and healthier life by taking an inventory of what you are doing right and what small things you need to change. “Once you have an understanding of what needs to be adjusted it is much more manageable than just a vague general idea of ‘I need to become healthier,’” concludes Buettner. “Often we are fighting against a system that is set up to make the unhealthy choice the easy choice. It isn’t about eschewing technology; it’s about cherry-picking the best lessons from local tradition.”
Updated: November 12, 2015 04:00 AM