“Blue Zones” are defined as regions that have more centenarians and fewer instances of chronic disease than anywhere else in the world, a pattern that experts put down to occupants’ healthy diet and lifestyle habits. But you don’t have to move to Sardinia or the Greek island of Icaria (two of the five blue zones identified by author Dan Buettner, who coined the phrase) in order to reap the benefits of blue zone living.
Here, we highlights habits to adopt from Blue Zone populations.
Eat healthy fats
One of the main commonalities between people living in Blue Zones around the world is the presence of plenty of healthy fats in their diets. On the island of Okinawa, Japan, it shows up as fatty fish like salmon, while in the Mediterranean people enjoy plenty of local olive oil. There are multiple benefits to healthy fats like omega-3, a polyunsaturated essential fatty acid, but one of the main reasons they’re associated with longevity is their ability to reduce inflammation, which is at the root of chronic health conditions like heart disease, as well as strokes and even depression and anxiety.
Two particular types of omega-3, EPA and DHA, are known to benefit brain health and slow cognitive decline, by helping to preserve cell membrane health and encourage communication between brain cells. Olive oil is a great source of both, but always opt for extra virgin olive oil, as it has not been refined and so retains more of its nutritional value.
Omega-3 might also help to explain the energy levels of the elderly populations of the Blue Zones. A diet that’s rich in healthy unsaturated oils, nuts such as walnuts, and fats found in fruits like avocado is crucial for warding off fatigue and improving energy and vitality. That’s because fat is the most energy-dense of the macronutrients. Omega-3s also help promote blood circulation in the brain, which can help you feel more alert.
Drink more tea
Drinking endless cups of tea is big in Japan–incidentally home to one of the world’s recognized Blue Zones–too. In Japan, 72.3 percent of people drink green tea daily. It’s packed with polyphenols, antioxidants that help to protect the body against disease and slow down the natural aging of the brain. Green tea is also a potent anti-stress tool–it contains an amino acid called L-theanine, a known relaxant that triggers the production of dopamine and serotonin.
There are health benefits to black tea, too. Although its nutritional value diminishes when you add milk, sugar or sweetener, black tea is excellent for heart health thanks to theaflavins, which help lower cholesterol, and flavanoids, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Instead of setting yourself ambitious, potentially unachievable fitness goals, take your cues from the Blue Zones and build some movement into your daily routine. It doesn’t necessarily have to be “exercise:” in a study published by Nature Medicine, short bursts of activity (like running up the stairs) that were measured using wearable tech devices were found to be beneficial in staving off ill health. The results revealed that those who partook in short but intense bouts of movement reduced their heart disease mortality risk by 50 percent and their risk of death from cancer by around 40 percent, compared with those who did no vigorous activity. Although it might not feel like you’re doing much, this kind of movement is enough to stress the cardiovascular system, which increases your oxygen uptake and prevents your cardiac arteries from clogging.
Daily movement of some kind is important for healthy lymph flow too, which is essential for keeping the immune system in shape. Start by making small incremental changes every day. Whether it’s factoring in more stairs to climb, or adding a few gentle stretches to your pre-bedtime routine, aim to move more a little each day. Going for a gentle 10-minute walk after dinner will help to improve your digestion and lower your stress levels before you head to bed.
Prioritize your sleep
In Blue Zones, people understand the importance of a great night’s sleep. Good quality sleep reenergizes brain cells, repairs skin and strengthens every major system in the body, including the immune, respiratory, endocrine and central nervous systems.
Naps are also a priority in blue zones. Experts agree that the right kind of nap (around 20 minutes is optimum and never after 3 p.m.), can not only restore a sleep deficit but also improve concentration, mood and energy. As for healthy nighttime habits, sticking to a regular sleep schedule of set times and getting between seven and nine hours a night all contributes to better overall health.
Make time for community
Even in today’s increasingly remote and frenetic world, Blue Zone inhabitants all share a common belief in the importance of community. Given that humans are naturally sociable creatures, it’s really no surprise that social interaction is key to a long and healthy life. A recent study found that people who are characterized as socially isolated had a 26 percent higher risk of all-cause death, while prolonged loneliness also resulted in an elevated risk of 14 percent.
Being around other people is also key to better brain health. When we interact with others, blood circulates to different parts of the brain to help us listen and formulate responses. Constantly using the brain in this way increases the connections made between brain cells and the neural circuits that are used. The more active and adaptive these are, the harder it is for neurodegenerative diseases to get a hold.
This article was originally published on Vogue UK.