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Wisdom from the blue zones for life in lockdown

Eat less, move more and stay tethered—lessons from the world’s long-living folks on weathering tough times

A group of old men in Sardinia, which has the oldest male population in the world.
A group of old men in Sardinia, which has the oldest male population in the world. (Photo: Alamy)

The blue zones are five areas on our planet with a concentration of people who live long, active and healthy lives. They are known for their nonagenarians and centenarians who go about their daily business growing and gathering food, preparing meals, meeting friends and having a good laugh together. Like the title of the forthcoming James Bond film, it’s as though they have “no time to die".

I first learnt about the blue zones when I visited the island of Sardinia, off the coast of Italy. As we climbed the cliffs of Capo Figari, overlooking the azure Tyrrhenian channel, my trekking guide Marco Budroni spoke of villages where handfuls of locals, over a hundred years of age, looked and behaved decades younger. When asked what their secret was, he smiled and said, “If you want to live long time in Sardinia, you absolutely must drink red wine every single day!"

The idea of the blue zones was pioneered by American writer and explorer Dan Buettner. His 2005 piece in the National Geographic magazine, titled “The Secrets Of A Long Life", drew the world’s attention to these extraordinary pulses of life dotting the temperate regions of the earth. Why are they called blue zones? It’s to do with the team of demographers that first began to look for centenarians in the highlands of Sardinia. As they found them, they drew circles on the map in blue ink, giving rise to the name. The study was expanded worldwide and the name stuck.

The five famous areas that emerged were Sardinia in Italy (with the longest living men on the planet), Okinawa in Japan (with the longest living women), Ikaria in Greece, Nicoya in Costa Rica and Loma Linda, (a Seventh Day Adventist Community) in California.

Buettner visited these places to understand what they might be doing right and to see if there were any common factors. His book Blue Zones is full of wisdom and delightful anecdotes.

He learnt that it wasn’t about genes (for the populations are fairly homogenous) or dieting or using gyms and expensive supplements. The long-lived were living simple wholesome lives and had no self-wrecking bad habits.

They moved regularly all day, doing chores, bending, lifting and carrying things around the house and outside. The Adventists go for nature walks on Saturdays, Okinawans practise Tai chi. They had a sense of purpose. The Japanese call it ikigai, something that gets them up in the morning, and the Costa Ricans call it plan de vida, or a life plan.

They had friends whom they met regularly and were surrounded by family. Many lived in multigenerational family units where grandparents care for and delight in the young ones. A supportive spouse was a huge positive. Faith and spirituality played a role, with people benefiting from the social aspects of the community as well.

They got 8 hours of sleep at night and slowed down with naps, prayers or meditation during the day.

Theirs was a consistently healthy diet of home-grown, mostly plant-based food. The Adventists are vegetarians. The Sardinians and Okinawans love herb teas with oregano, mint and rosemary. Okinawans enjoy seaweed. They drink alcohol in moderation.

In the current times of lockdown in various forms around the planet, faced with the invisible thunderbolt of coronavirus, we too can take some pointers from folks in the blue zones. We need to switch to a lifestyle with fewer needs and little waste.

“Keep moving" is a key takeaway. If you are in a house with a garden, take a stroll. In an apartment, pace back and forth on the longest stretch. Walk as you watch TV or lift light weights with many repetitions. I have a two-piece, removable ping-pong tabletop that sits on my dining table and am learning how to return topspin zingers.

Bring on the vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts. Beans, hugely popular in all the blue zones, are particularly nutritious and their fibre is a very good base for healthy bacteria to flourish. Plant herbs and vegetables in any available space and enjoy them fresh.

Eating less is one of the biggest pieces of wisdom. The Okinawans practise hara hachi bu, which means eat till you are 80% full.

Now is a good time to learn those dance steps or bridge or a new language online. Stay connected with friends and family on myriad apps. Teach or advise someone online. Help those cooking vast meals for migrant labourers. Donate. As Buettner says, “Don’t wake up rudderless."

Many of the folks from the blue zones say they are especially toughened as they have withstood serious hardships. They have suffered natural calamities, famines, shortages and the upheavals of World War II. We too are going through a time of unprecedented adversity and learning from it might just bolster us for the future.

Geetika Jain shares noteworthy notions from around the world.

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