Dan Buettner's Blue Zones teach nine secrets of a longer life

Oprah author shares his longevity plan

He carries his paper cup to a big wooden table by the front window and takes a seat. As the talk turns to his project in Albert Lea, Buettner flips open his laptop and brings up the stats from the life expectancy survey.

In a chair nearby, a 30-something man overhears. His ears perk up. He leans over and addresses Buettner.

"Hey, man, I just started following you on Twitter."

Buettner looks up, a little startled, and smiles.

"Oh," he says. "Who knows where that will lead?" He smiles. "But thanks."

Buettner's big project now is taking his Blue Zones to more cities. Already, several cities are interested in being the sites of the makeover, and a health reform corporation called Healthways has signed on as a partner.

"I've made my career out of making discoveries and making those discoveries interesting to the general population. I like doing that," Buettner says. "You can walk up a hillside and get to the top and see a beautiful sunset, but it's better if you discover that and you're with somebody else.

"I have a thrill out of recognizing something and saying, 'Isn't this amazing,'" Buettner says. "I get to do it by a factor of 10 million."

The Power of Nine

Buettner's "nine little things" aren't exactly groundbreaking. In fact, what Buettner uncovered in his global pursuit of the fountain of youth turned out to be well-established medical principles that doctors and social scientists have known about for years. Buettner's real contribution is in distilling the wisdom of traditional cultures into easy-to-follow steps—he calls them the Power Nine.

Move naturally

When he was traveling with Buettner in Okinawa, Greg Plotnikoff, medical director of Abbott Northwestern's integrative medicine program, was impressed with the agility of a woman in her late 80s who served her visitors green tea.

"She comes out of the kitchen area carrying a tray—on it is a beautiful teapot and teacups—and with minimal effort, carrying this tray with hot boiling water and beautiful pottery, with no assistance, she lowers herself to the floor," Plotnikoff says. "Balance and strength and flexibility were built into her daily life."

Buettner recommends finding a physical activity you like, setting a date with a friend to do it together, and making movement a regular part of your life.

Hara hachi bu

The Confucian-inspired Okinawan saying means, roughly, eat until you're 80 percent full. That's not a diet strategy—it's a way of life. Rather than stop eating once they are full, as most Americans do, Okinawans stop eating once they are no longer hungry.

Using smaller plates and tall, thin glasses makes portions seem bigger and is an effective way to painlessly cut overeating, according to Wansink, the food expert. Wansink also recommends eating slowly, savoring each bite.

Eat a plant-based diet

Strict Adventists avoid meat entirely. Sardinians and Okinawans enjoy it only occasionally—at festivals and special celebrations. Studies have shown that vegetarianism is associated with longevity.

Worried about getting enough protein? Actually, adults over age 19 only need about 0.8 grams of protein for every 2.2 lbs. of body weight—or about 1.8 to 2.8 ounces per day, according to Lytle. And there is plenty of iron in fortified grains.

To live like the people of Sardinia, Loma Linda, and Okinawa, Buettner recommends making beans and tofu the centerpieces of meals, eating four to six servings of vegetables per day, and adding nuts to your daily intake.

Bottoms up

Okinawans enjoy sake. The shepherds of Sardinia drink wine made from Cannonau grapes. About a glass or two a day is right—any more than that will bring negative consequences that offset the health benefits of moderate drinking.

Find your purpose

Okinawans call it ikigai, Nicoyans call it plan de vida. Richard Leider, world-renowned expert on finding meaning in life, calls it "the reason to get up in the morning."

"It's not just a nice-to-have thing," says Leider. "Purpose is the golden thread that holds the other factors in vitality together—health, wellness, diet, exercise."

To find your purpose, Leider recommends asking yourself some basic questions.

"What are your gifts?" he says. "What are your passions—what do you care about? What are your values—what are environments you want to be working in? Gifts plus passions plus values equals calling or purpose."

De-stress

Adventists have a ready-made de-stressor called the Sabbath. They don't do work or organized sports or homework those days. Instead, they spend time with their families, creating a sense of closeness and balance.

To lower stress in your own life, Buettner recommends reducing noise in the home by turning off the television or radio. Aim to arrive to appointments 15 minutes early—it helps cut anxiety and creates a cushion for traffic and parking time. And start a meditation practice of at least 10 minutes a day, eventually working up to 30 minutes.

Get spiritual

If you already attend a church or spiritual center, renew your commitment by becoming more involved. If organized religion's not for you, you might consider humanist groups, like Unitarian Universalism.

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