Reverse Engineering the Blue Zone

Around the globe, people are living longer than ever before. Those that reach the 100-year-old age mark could be seen as evidence of a divine makeup—a blessing of good luck and superior genes.

While genetics play a vital role in one’s length of life, healthy habits also significantly contribute to one’s life span. Thanks to a team of researchers, we now have a greater understanding of how centenarians have come to celebrate more birthdays than most others on the planet.

BTR sat down to talk with Dan Buettner—a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author—to discuss the key to living a longer, healthier, and happier life.

In his book “The Blue Zones Solution,” Buettner provides a strategy to maximize one’s health based on the customs of the world’s healthiest and oldest living people.

Through extensive research, Buettner determined that the world’s longest-lived and healthiest people reside in five locations, which he labels “Blue Zones.” These localities include Okinawa, Japan, Sardinia, Italy, Costa Rica’s Nicola Peninsula, Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.

“We went through world-wide census data and parsed it to find areas where either populations had the longest life expectancy or the lowest rate of middle-age mortality,” Buettner shares with BTR. “Once we zeroed in on the five Blue Zone areas, we brought in a team of experts to explain that longevity.”

Buettner and his team touch on several resolutions that account for the extended life spans of Blue Zone residents. Firstly, the diets of those living in the five defined areas were examined. He and his team aggregated dietary surveys to determine the types of foods these communities rely on for sustenance.

“If you want to know what a 100-year-old ate to live to be 100 years, you have to know what she was eating when she was five, and 20, and 40, and 60, and 80,” says Buettner.

His findings showed that nearly 90 percent of the resident’s dietary intake came from three powerful foods: beans, sweet potatoes, and greens. These pillars of the Blue Zone diet led Buettner to establish the diet of longevity, which people across the globe can now emulate.

Along with diet, the level of physical activity occurring in Blue Zones was inspected. Typically, people in these regions do not exercise in the way Americans think of exercise (i.e. going to the gym); rather, these people live in environments where they are prodded into movement.

Buettner explains that several factors contribute to this unintended way of exercise. Since these communities rely on vegetables and herbs, they spend a great deal of time exerting physical energy in their gardens. In addition, these zones have established local routes that encourage walking as the main method of transport.

Although one’s eating habits and exercise play a consequential role in longevity, Buettner lists another lifestyle practice that is not as apparent: connection.

“The foundation of Blue Zones everywhere is how they connect. They tend to belong to a faith. They tend to put family ahead of career or ahead of individual interests. They surround themselves with people who support the right behaviors,” shared Buettner.

People living in Blue Zones form sturdy bonds within their community. This creates a sense of purpose, a facet of positive thinking which also aids in longer and healthier living.

Overall, Buettner has revealed multiple influencers of longevity which must all be present in order to establish and sustain a healthful existence.

“It’s not a single intervention. It’s a cluster of mutually supporting factors. You can almost think of it as scaffolding that holds the right behaviors in place long enough to make a difference,” he illustrates.

It is important to note that only one Blue Zone exists in America. Since collecting the research into his book, Buettner has set out on a mission to build the architecture of longevity throughout American communities.

“The key to making a Blue Zone in America is to change people’s environment so that the healthy choice is the unavoidable choice,” Buettner suggests. “We change food policy so that fruits and vegetables are cheaper and more accessible than fast food. We go into every school, store, workplace, and restaurant; if they make their environments 20 percent healthier, they earn Blue Zone certification.”

With that incentive, more Americans are leading healthier lives and increasing their life expectancy. In 2009, Buettner launched the largest preventive healthcare project in North America. His endeavor, The Blue Zones City Makeovers, has impacted the health of Americans across the country.

One of Buettner’s first initiatives occurred in Minnesota. In applying the conventions he unearthed through his studies, he and his team were able to influence the lives of the city’s inhabitants. Over time, they were able to lower the average weight of people in Minnesota by three and a half pounds, raise their life expectancy by three years, and reduce healthcare costs by 40 percent.

All of the schools in the Minnesota area have received Blue Zone Certification. Children are fed nourishing lunches rather than the fatty options usually provided at American school cafeterias. Restaurants also earn Buettner’s seal of approval by providing healthier alternatives for their customers.

Buettner also worked to create walkable paths around the city to encourage physical movement.

Through his examination of Blue Zones, Buettner was able enact changes in American cities that altered the landscape of their population’s longevity. He has managed to distill the myth that exercise and diet supplements alone will equate to healthy, life-expanding results. Instead, his discoveries show that cultivating a supportive network of friends and family and establishing purpose matter just as much, if not more, in ensuring longer living.

Perhaps what is most crucial in all of Buettner’s work is the idea that anybody can improve their habits and create their own Blue Zone.


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