Nutrition: Linking to LongevityFor years I have had a personal fascination with the longest living populations around the world. These populations and their corresponding locations are commonly referred to as blue zones. Despite being geographically far apart and differing immensely in their diets, these locations do share many lifestyle habits that have resulted in the highest life expectancy rates in the world—greatly outlasting the average American.
Linking to Longevity
By: Jeremy Partl, Registered Dietitian
Achieving mastery in a skill or sport is something best done with the help of a person who has risen to the top of that field or who has lots of personal experience, right? You hire a coach because they have a proven track record of expertise in that field. You hire a financial advisor to give you the best guidance on setting up a retirement plan, and you read the books of business leaders to see what they did to grow their companies to multimillion-dollar enterprises.
For years I have had a personal fascination with the longest living populations around the world. These populations and their corresponding locations are commonly referred to as blue zones. Despite being geographically far apart and differing immensely in their diets, these locations do share many lifestyle habits that have resulted in the highest life expectancy rates in the world—greatly outlasting the average American.
These Blue Zone hotspots around the world are:
- Okinawa, Japan
- Sardinia, Italy
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Loma Linda, California
- Ikaria, Greece
In his New York Times Best Sellerm, “The Blue Zones Solution,” Dan Buettner highlights nine evidence-based common denominators shared by these long-living folks. In this article, I will attempt to see how we can apply these lifestyle habits to increase our odds of survival—and hopefully thrive for years to come.
“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. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.”
No, I don’t expect you to give up strength training. Strength has positive effects on our lives: being able to lift heavier things, play sports better, perform better in routine daily tasks, and develop a mindset built on competence and self-esteem—from youth to old age.
At the same time, just because you train a couple of hours several days of the week, it doesn’t mean you should be sitting on your butt the rest of the day. The adage of “sitting is the new smoking” gets overblown, but still, as humans, we were built for movement. Even if you work a desk job, you can take a daily walk, get up more often throughout the day, and spend more time stretching around work sessions or while chilling out. When you move your body more, you will feel better.
“The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida”; for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.”
What is your big “why”? What is behind your efforts to get stronger or lose weight? We can often uphold our training and dietary habits for single events or feats (like setting PRs in a meet or reaching a certain number on the scale), but I would argue that there needs to be a deeper meaning to a lot of your habits.
Yes, you can train as a hobby. But training, eating healthy, and dialing in other lifestyle aspects can be a vehicle for achieving health in many more areas of your life.
I train to become strong so I can do the manual lifting when I volunteer. I nourish my body and ensure I get enough sleep so I can have the energy to give my all in my work with my patients. I meditate and pray so I can be fully present during the workday and when I am with those I love. My habits go beyond the short-term and the physical.
“Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.”
The work you do in the gym is just the stimulus. Just as important (if not more) is the recovery process. That’s why we put so much focus on proper nutrition, sleep, and recovery methods. It’s the reason you aren’t training seven days a week or doing double sessions. You need to recover to adapt.
But beyond the gym, there is a term coined in 1993 called allostatic load, which refers to the cumulative burden of chronic stress and life events. Even if you don’t think it plays a role, your job stress, family concerns, etc. add complications to the recovery game.
So even if you are adhering to a well-formulated training plan, eating well, and getting enough sleep, it may still help to have some recovery-oriented habits like prayer, meditation, and hobbies that aren’t work-related.
“‘Hara hachi bu’ – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.”
Portion control. Something many people don’t like to talk about, especially the strength athletes in the house. Often with the goal of adding strength at all costs, powerlifters will push past their body’s cues and indulge on a frequent basis. While this may make you stronger, the long-term impact of consistently adding body weight may result in health impairments like high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, etc. It’s a fine balance of prioritizing success in sport and long-term health outcomes.
For the recreational lifter and average person, portion control is something that many people aren’t very good at. Whether we are a member of the “clean plate club,” are tempted by delicious seconds, or mindlessly consuming extra portions and snacks, being mindful of hunger cues and stopping shy of being overly full can help to keep weight in a healthy range and possibly provide more satisfaction when eating.
While there are some physiological differences that may result in better nutrient partitioning earlier on in the day, one of the main advantages is the ability to make better choices. Not too many wise choices are made after 8 pm—whether it is choosing tempting desserts, mindlessly snacking while watching Netflix, or ordering a take-out pizza.
“Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of a deck of cards.”
Okay, let’s be realistic: I’m not asking you to give up eating meat and eggs and/or cut back on the size of your portions. While I do see benefits of that, we know that protein is a very important macronutrient, especially for those who are active and doing activities like strength training.
At the same time, the focus is more on what you are ADDING to your diet and not what you are RESTRICTING. Just like in the most recent Take Charge 10 Nutrition Challenge, I would never shy away from increasing your vegetable intake. Vegetables are high in fiber, potassium, vitamins, and phytochemicals that truly nourish your body.
Furthermore, adding other plant-based foods like whole grains, beans, etc. can help to provide additional micronutrients and fats without adding saturated fat to the diet.
Wine @ 5
“People in all blue zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday.”
I’ve written previously on the topic of alcohol. I am surely not in the abstinence camp, for those who enjoy drinking alcohol and for whom doing so adds value to their life. However, the key is to find moderation—where drinking adds more value to your life than the compounding negative consequences that can result from frequent and heavy consumption.
While these populations may have alcohol on a regular basis, they balance it with limited amounts and intentionality.
I think you could still see health benefits and enjoy your drinks (maybe even more) if you would have 1-2 drinks, 1-2 days/nights per week.
“The world’s longest-lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created” moais”–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. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.”
Like the old Jim Rohm saying goes: “You are the average of the five people you spend your time with.” Research consistently shows that your social network provides a significant improvement in things like happiness, attitude, and success.
One of the core values of BLOC is to work constantly to build a community, inviting people to participate in this refining process of simple, hard, and effective training. From another article: “We create an encouraging atmosphere while pushing our clients to succeed in ways that build them up, treating programming and online coaching as one aspect of a positive relationship with clients, and building a community, because inclusiveness and success breed confidence, trust, and respect.”
BLOC offers a wonderful opportunity to be part of a larger community that supports healthy behaviors. However, wherever you find that, whether it be at your gym or from another place, remember to find the people who will make you better. Your tribe will provide you with the laughter, support, and happiness necessary to get through life.
“All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.”
Are you worshiping the God of Gains?
Whether you are a Christian or just consider yourself spiritual, it’s hard to deny the benefits of being in a community that reaches beyond yourself. At the same time, it’s totally understandable for everyone to have their own faith beliefs, or lack thereof.
In the fitness realm, your community may consist of your training partners and the gym regulars you always see training at the same time as you. Going along with the above point, find that community and social support and let it create a bigger life outside of physical fitness.
Loved Ones First
“Successful centenarians in the blue zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home, too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).”
Strength and aesthetic sports can have a downside. If you are consistently putting all of your physical and mental energy into your training and nutrition and neglecting time with family—get a life! The food you eat and the gym you train at will always be there, but your family may not.
While I’m not going to say that you have to skip all your training sessions to be with your family, if you are spending all your recreational hours at the gym or in the kitchen doing meal prep for the sake of setting a PR or getting shredded, you may want to reflect on how your relationship with your family is.
Without your family, you likely wouldn’t be where you are today. Make sure you remind them how grateful you are for their love and support, and spend as much time as you can with them.
Lessons from the Longest Living
I don’t expect you to go out and change your entire lifestyle after reading this article. However, just like we learn from the experts in other areas of life, taking a look at the evidence-based practices of the longest living people might push you to make subtle tweaks in the way that you live your life that could improve your odds of living a longer and higher quality life without much effort.
The good news is that these habits don’t relate just to those living out on the land and in small communities. They can also be applied to the lives of city dwelling, average Joes who enjoy throwing around some heavy weights in their downtime.