Retirement Life
3 April 2024

Four habits that might just extend your life


One of the biggest myths about leading a long and healthy life is that there’s a pill, superfood or supplement that will provide the answer to longevity. A more valuable source of health and wellbeing wisdom may come from the blue zones – regions around the world where people commonly live the longest. Through research and observation over many decades, experts have identified four habits that can extend your life and your health span and thus enhance your retirement.


These blue zones typically have quite small populations – a group of villages – rather than whole countries or even regions. Examples of blue zones include Okinawa Prefecture, Japan; Nuoro Province, Sardinia, Italy; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Icaria, Greece.


And are you wondering why the word “blue” was used to describe these zones? The story goes that they are called blue zones because when scientists originally started studying these areas, they drew blue circles around them on a map!


#1 Embrace a plant-based diet

One of the key factors contributing to longevity in the blue zones is a predominantly plant-based diet. Rather than centring meals around processed foods or meats, residents in these regions prioritise whole grains, greens and garden vegetables, tubers, nuts, and beans. These foods are rich in essential nutrients, antioxidants, and fibre, which promote heart health, regulate blood sugar levels, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer.


This kind of diet doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. It’s been referred to as “peasants food made to taste delicious”. The key is the diversity of good foods with the right nutrition (high fibre and polyphenols) and a great food culture, where everyone eats together and shares the food socially. These people also eat what’s available each season and rely heavily on their gardens. Meat is consumed only around five times a month.


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#2 Stay active through natural movement

Unlike the sedentary lifestyle prevalent in many modern societies, residents of the blue zones engage in regular, low-intensity physical activity as part of their daily routines. Instead of relying on going to the gym or following a structured exercise programme, they embrace natural movement through activities like walking, gardening, and housework. They spread their physical activity throughout the day, rather than just once at the gym. This consistent, gentle exercise helps maintain flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular health without placing undue stress on the body.


#3 Cultivate strong social connections

Human connection is another cornerstone of longevity in the blue zones. Residents of these regions prioritise relationships with family, friends, and community members, fostering a sense of belonging and support. Research indicates that strong social connections not only reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation but also bring tangible health benefits, such as lowering stress levels and boosting immunity. Yes, they may have a glass of wine together, but that glass of wine will last them all evening as they laugh and share stories with their immediate social circle.


#4 Practise mindfulness and purpose

Finally, individuals in the blue zones often lead lives with strong meaning or purpose and have a clear idea of why they wake up in the morning. Whether through faith, cultural tradition, or a strong sense of community service, they find fulfilment in contributing to something greater than themselves. They wake up with meaning, by having, for example, sacred daily rituals such as prayer or remembering and feeling grateful for their ancestors. These actions also help to reduce stress, improve sleep and increase resilience when faced with adversity.


Environment matters, too

Overarching all the habits above, it’s the environment these blue zone residents live in that mainly drives the quality of their health. They live close to nature, in an environment that is not stressful. These areas typically have sunny climates, so people can easily be outside, tending to their gardens, meeting their friends, and exercising outdoors.


Incorporating these four habits inspired by the blue zones can pave the way for a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling retirement – making the most of this precious stage of life.


For more information on how dietary patterns, community, environment and stress management play pivotal roles in longevity, we recommend this YouTube video (1 hour and 4 minutes) from ZOE, a science and nutrition podcast. You may also want to watch Netflix’s Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, featuring Dan Buettner’s work.


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Photo of Kathy Catton
Written by:

Kathy Catton

Kathy Catton is a freelance writer and editor, based on the Banks Peninsula. She is an experienced feature writer, magazine editor and copywriter. Quick to grasp the crux of any story and tell it in plain English, Kathy enjoys bringing stories to readers that surprise and delight.

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