It was the adventurer and journalist, Dan Buettner, who first brought the concept of Blue Zones to the public eye. These global pockets, where people are ten times more likely to become centenarians than a person who has lived their life in the United States, appear to hold the secret to health and longevity
As it turns out, their age-defying secrets are not a magical superfood or a mystical chalice of glacial water drawn from the fountain of youth – rather, they are a simple combination of lifestyle factors which, together, have a life-extending effect.
How we choose to live has a medicinal effect
Telomeres are the protective caps at the end of strands of DNA; think of them like the aglet at the end of a shoe lace which keeps the fibres of the lace from fraying – they reduce wear-and-tear on our genes. Telomeres shorten with age as a small portion of them are lost every time a cell divides and, when you dig a little deeper into the science behind the ‘recipe for longevity’, it’s interesting to note that several of the core behaviours which all blue zoners exhibit exert a positive effect on the length of telomeres.
Blue Zone inhabitants have shown that how we eat and behave can have a powerful influence on our health and longevity – possibly because it slows the rate of telomere shortening. Here are some easy things you can start to implement in your life today.
Harness plant power
Vegetables and, in particular, pulses – beans, lentils and soy – are staple foods in most centenarian diets. The anti-ageing effect plants exert on our bodies are mainly attributed to their superior ability to deliver fibre and antioxidants to our systems compared to other food groups.
Aside from having a positive effect on telomere length, fibre may also reduce your risk of heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes and it has been shown to assist with healthy weight control – increasing satiety after meals and preventing overeating. Adults need around 30g of fibre a day but most of us come up short, eating only around 18g.
Up your antioxidants
Antioxidants provide protection from oxidative damage, thereby slowing the ageing process. Diets lacking in antioxidants have been shown to increase attrition on telomere length, whereas the following nutrients have been shown to ‘apply the brakes’ and increase longevity:
- Omega 3 fatty acids, highest in flaxseeds, sardines, salmon, (grassfed) beef, walnuts, soybeans (including tofu) shrimp and brussel sprouts.
- Vitamin E, found in sunflower seeds, almonds, cooked spinach, swiss chard and avocado.
- Vitamin C, richly available in papaya, bell peppers, brussel sprouts, broccoli, strawberries and pineapple.
- Green tea, including matcha.
The Okinawans practice a mantra, hara hachi bu, before meals which reminds them to stop eating when they are 80% full. Studies show that eating less reduces the body’s oxidative burden and damage to DNA. This has an extremely positive impact on health and keeps the body in a biologically younger state. It is also a sensible weight control strategy. Obesity has been shown to accelerate the loss of telomeres, resulting in a loss of 8.8 years of life – an effect described as ‘worse than smoking’.
Exercise helps to reduce body fat and speed elimination of waste from the body. This reduces the overall burden of oxidative stress. It is also believed that exercise increases the expression of telomere stabilising proteins, effectively producing an anti-ageing benefit.
Blue zoners don’t go to great lengths to work out. Instead the environments they live in encourage them to move naturally. So, consider, do you really need that gym membership or would you be better off attending a dance/martial arts/yoga class that you really enjoy each week? Can you get up and talk to a colleague rather than emailing them? Can you take the stairs? Success lies in finding ways to effortlessly incorporate more movement into your daily routine.
Stress leads to the release of glucocorticoid hormones by the adrenal glands; it is believed that high levels of these hormones over time effectively shorten lifespan.
One study showed that women exposed to stress in their daily life had increased oxidative stress and shorter telomere length than the control group, who didn’t. The difference in telomere length between the two groups was equivalent to 10 years of life.
This suggests that stress predisposes us to early onset age-related health problems. The world’s longest-lived people have routines to help them offset the stress; these range from having a spiritual practice to taking a nap. Emerging research suggests that meditation may exhibit a stress-buffering effect and slow the ageing process. Vedic meditation has a large body of evidence-based support and is a simple meditation technique which may be worth experimenting with.
Time to take action
How do I make this all happen?
There is no magic ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution; you need to find what works for you. However, our top tips are to create healthy habits around the following key areas.
- Stop eating when your stomach is 80% full
- Include some pulses daily e.g. add beans/lentils to your lunch/dinner or use hummus or a bean dip as a snack
- Nosh on a handful of nuts or seeds a day
- Include five portions of vegetables and one to two portions of fruit and make sure to include some from the vitamin E and C categories
- Ensure you’re having two portions of oily fish per week
- Find ways to naturally increase the amount of movement in your day
Some further ideas include:
- Implement walking meetings
- Stretch your legs at lunch
- Buddy-up and commit to making an exercise class once a week
Meditate, pray, nap, knit, meet your friends for a glass of wine or simply switch off your electronic devices and go ‘digitally dark’ for a day each week so you can really connect with yourself and your loved ones. Find a practice which works for you and consistently apply it. The reduction in stress is sure to reward you with a healthier, longer life.
This article was provided by Feel Good – a company that brings health and wellbeing to the work environment.
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