WASHINGTON — The secret to a long life doesn’t involve years of perpetual dieting and intense exercise regimes.
According to Dan Buettner, it’s all about adjusting your environment.
For several years, Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, traveled around the world and studied communities where people live long, healthy lives. He dubs these five locations — Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula; the Greek island of Ikaria; and the Italian island of Sardinia — “blue zones.”
It was in the blue zones where he discovered the key to longevity.
“The secret is getting away from the notion that we can change our behavior,” said Buettner, author of the new book “The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People.”
“Modifying our behavior through diet or exercise programs sometimes works in the short-run, but it universally fails in the long-run. What does work — and we learned this in all blue zones — people who are making it to 100 are not doing so because they are trying to do so, they’re doing so because their environments are set up in the right way.”
In these communities, the cheapest, most accessible and delicious foods happen to be the healthiest. Residents are nudged to move every 20 minutes — and not just because they are trying to get in their “steps” for the day, but because it’s a way of life.
They also live in tight-knit communities where being lonely isn’t possible.
“The option to implode in your suburban home in the basement on the computer just doesn’t exist [in the blue zones],” Buettner said.
Currently, Buettner, along with a team of researchers, is taking lessons learned from these global communities and applying them to 42 American cities. He’s working with local governments to adopt policies that favor healthy foods and people-friendly streets, and with restaurants and schools to serve more naturally healthy foods.
Of course, it’s also up to individuals to implement a few “blue-zone friendly” changes at home. Here’s Buettner’s advice for doing just that:
Put the low-carb diet to rest. Buettner says all of the blue-zone communities eat diets that are heavy in carbohydrates. In fact, about 65 percent of blue-zone diets consist of carbohydrates.
The difference is, the carbohydrates that blue-zone residents eat aren’t preservative-laden; they’re plant-based, complex carbohydrates.
Another thing blue-zone communities have in common is their intake of nuts and beans. Residents in blue zones eat about a handful of nuts and about 1 cup of beans every day.
“And if you’re eating about a cup of beans a day, it’s probably adding about three or four years to your life expectancy,” Buettner said.
Other familiar foods include sweet potatoes, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables.
Selecting your social network
The social network Buettner refers to in “The Blue Zones Solution” doesn’t have anything to do with your Facebook account or Instagram followers. He’s talking about the people you interact with on a daily basis.
For starters, Buettner says having friends is an important part of living longer. In fact, having three close friends — people you can call up on a bad day — will add about eight years to your life.
It’s also important that the friends you surround yourself with are healthy individuals. If your closest friends are overweight or obese, there’s a higher likelihood you will be as well. Surrounding yourself with people who enjoy eating healthy and moving more means you will likely do the same.
Another tip of Buettner’s: If you belong to a faith, it’s a good idea to show up. Many religions have built-in communities of support.
Building activity into your life
In many of the blue-zone communities, gym memberships do not exist. Residents get exercise through daily activities.
Since many modern American jobs require more time spent at a computer than plowing the fields, Buettner recommends finding other ways to build activity into your daily life, such as through gardening and taking public transportation.
“People who do this get more physical activity and reduce their chances of heart disease by 11 percent,” Buettner said about taking public transportation.