ergonomics · fitness

Is life really rosier in the Blue Zones? On health and community

Is health something that we are born with (or not), something we work for (or not), or something that just happens to us (or not)? Or is it something we can get just by relocating to the right town or neighborhood?

This last idea has become popular in the last decade or so with the advent of the notion of Blue Zones— actual places where there’s been documentation of people living well over the age of 100. Where are these places, you ask? No problem– here they are:

  • Sardinia (Italy)
  • Okinawa (Japan)
  • Loma Linda (California, Seventh-day Adventists)
  • Nicoya (Costa Rica)
  • Ikaria (Greece)

If you prefer pictures, they are here:

The world with Blue Zones located. Although the whole world is blue. Hmmm...
The world with Blue Zones located. Although the whole world is blue. Hmmm…

Hmmm. Okay. Next question: what is going on in these places? According to this article (and the book by Blue Zone guy Dan Buettner), these things:

  1. They have a strong sense of family.
  2. They eat very little meat and processed foods, but instead eat a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, especially beans, and have a moderate caloric intake.
  3. They do moderate exercise every day as a function of living – they walk to work, garden, climb hills, etc.
  4. They have a moderate amount of wine per day with friends and family.
  5. They have an active, strong social life.
  6. They report less stress, sleep well, and nap.
  7. They have a strong sense of purpose in their lives.
  8. They have a strong faith basis to their lives.

As Miss Manners would say, “how nice for them.”

Seriously, though, there is a big question here: can we/how can we shift some of the work of creating conditions for a healthy-to-us (or in this case healthy-to-experts) life to the communities where we live? There’s a ton of work being done in public health, urban planning, environmental architecture, you name it– lots of fields want to see how we can make healthyish and happier living easier for people. For instance, Buettner and company work with cities to help them develop say, infrastructures to make biking and walking commutes safer and easier(from this article):

Buettner and his team at Blue Zones have personally worked with dozens of US cities over the last decade to make them more walkable and bikeable. He points out that in almost every case, the BMI and obesity rate in those cities have dropped as a result.

“We have hard evidence that when you optimize a city for walkability, bikeability, public transportation, and cleaned-up parks, you can raise the physical activity level of a whole population by up to 30%,” says Buettner. “There is no gym, CrossFit, or exercise program that can get those types of results at a population level.”

I’m extremely skeptical about the drop in BMI claim. There have been many extremely well-funded multi-prong programs (like this one near me) to make environments more conducive to healthy-to-experts living and eating and moving. They have worked well on a lot of markers, but BMI doesn’t tend to be one of them.

But I digress. This idea of the Blue Zone has taken off in some circles; there are dozens of websites devoted to making your own Blue Zone, what are the advantages to Blue Zone living, etc. One website seems to suggest that Blue Zone living brings with it physical well being for as long as you live. At least this is what their illustration is telling me.

In some Blue Zones, everyone knows how to do crow pose.
In some Blue Zones, everyone knows how to do crow pose. She’s awesome, btw. It’s this website I am having a little fun with.

Even in a Blue Zone, we can’t protect against everything. I mean, eventually someone is going to have an anvil fall on them.

Wile E. Coyote. Don't worry, he'll be fine.
Wile E. Coyote. Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.

Again, digressing. So, short of moving to Sardinia or getting our city to overhaul the enture urban landscape, how can we create our own Blue Zones? You’re in luck– here’s a list:

  1. Walk your children to school 1 day a week (or more). Take turns with other parents so that it is more feasible with busy work schedules.
  2. Let your children play in the street (with discretion). Not only will your children enjoy it, but it creates a community of neighbors, slows traffic down, and encourages elderly neighbors to come out of their houses.
  3. Build a community. It doesn’t have to be with a religious group, although it may be for you, but it could also be around a volunteer position, your neighborhood, a hobby, or your children’s school.
  4. Eat more vegetables – period. You don’t have to become vegan, but try to incorporate at least 1 vegetable at every meal of the day with a goal of at least 5 servings per day.
  5. Eat with friends at work instead of at your desk. Perhaps go for a walk together every day. You’ll keep yourselves accountable and lower your stress burden.
  6. Add more fiber to your diet. Most of these communities ate more beans per day than average.
  7. Create a family mission statement about what you and/or your family wish for the world. Having a positive sense of purpose in how you are making a difference satisfies us and feeds our psyches.

But this is ill-conceived advice.  First of all, it’s of the buy-low-sell-high variety.  Everyone knows all of this. The thing that is supposed to be magic about the Blue Zones is that people don’t have to make a huge effort to put these systems into place or do it on their own—just living in the community creates a context that has systematized these practices (supposedly; I’m skeptical).

Also, this is kind of saying be richer and very lucky. Have more time to move, cook, eat. Pay more money for all of this. Have a supportive family and community that you’re an active part of. Don’t have mental health issues. Live close to your work and don’t spend too much time working. Develop a palate for certain kinds of foods, learn how to make recipes with them, take the time to shop for and prepare and eat them, and maintain this over time. Have a stable long-term relationship, stable and happy family situation, and lots of happy stable extended family and neighbors.  Right. Oh, and be a member of functional clubs that hike, prepare communal meals, etc.

In short, go forth and be privileged, and you’ll live longer. Thanks.

What we in the Zones of All Colors have to deal with is creating connections, leveraging the ones we have, working within our individual and social and financial and political constraints, and loosening those constraints by any means available when we have the energy and time and resources to do so. Which is what we already do.

What sorts of programs do you see in your communities for make them more Blue-Zone-like? Are you seeing more bike lanes? Green space development? All-ages crow pose workshops? I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “Is life really rosier in the Blue Zones? On health and community

  1. I’m always curious about where Spain fits in. It’s touted as the healthiest country in the world yet it’s got the highest rate of obesity in Europe. Maybe the blue zone people should just focus on health.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great critical discussion. Thanks, Catherine. Our London is putting in more bike lanes and I guess you have to start somewhere but the network has limits. So you are all safe and good on a bike lane but then it ends. Or you’re all safe and good on a bike lane, but then drivers don’t know what to do at intersections where they want to turn right and there’s a bike lane on the far right. Or you’re all safe and good on a bike lane and the drivers are pissed off anyway because the bike lanes are taking up road space or parking or whatever. These Blue Zones are interesting because (presumably) a lot the things are just ways of life already, so they don’t require “initiatives.” As you say, the “reasons” are things we already know. The challenge is doing them. If they’re already incorporated in a way of life, even at the level of cuisine, then it’s much easier to live that way without having to put in extra effort. For some reason, humans don’t like having to put in extra effort for their health.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. They eat very little meat and processed foods, but instead eat a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, especially beans, and have a moderate caloric intake.

    Did the author of that article actually go to Okinawa or are they just trading off of Japanese stereotypes? Because Okinawan food has a higher volume of meats (pork and beef, mostly) in its dishes than most other Japanese regions and is even famous for putting spam in its dishes. I also give a massive side-eye to #8 “They have a strong faith basis to their lives.” because not only does that assumption lean super heavy on religious privilege and conflate faith and community (you can have a strong sense of community without faith or religion!), but also it should be noted that Japan (Okinawa included) has a fairly high number of non-religious and nominally religious people compared to most other countries. The sheer number of assumptions made by the author that aren’t actually backed up with any evidence or citations boggle my mind.
    Doing a cursory poke around the website, though makes it pretty clear that Blue Zone, far from being a facts-based initiative, is more about trying to sell you on their products (like the meal plan) using the same kind of “clean eating”/”clean living” mentality that many other trends have capitalized on. So I guess I’m not surprised that the conclusions being drawn are… not well supported or researched, to put it nicely.

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