Over the past six months I’ve been delving into the topic of ageing and living well for my new documentary The Longevity Film (the cinema tour). I visited the world’s blue zones (longevity cultures) where people have extraordinary health throughout most of their life and live about ten years longer than we do. Ten years is a long time. And these are not just years in which the people in these cultures are debilitated and kept alive by modern medicine, these are active, healthy, fun years of life to engage with family & friends and to take joy in all the simple moments it has to offer.
Think about it, an extra ten high quality years. Sounds pretty good right?
Currently in Australia, men live to an average of around 80 whilst women live to 84, so we’re talking about a man reaching 90 and a woman reaching 94. We can attain it.
Throughout my travels I noted four main lifestyle pillars which these longevity cultures seem to operate by. According to the scientists and doctors who I interviewed, these fundamental underpinnings of blue zone societies could be the primary reasons for their incredible health.
“You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. You eat garbage, you’re guna’ make garbage.”
Paul Chek, renowned trainer & spiritual teacher
Interview for The Longevity Film
The longevity cultures, predominantly, follow a Seasonal, Local, Organic & Wholefood diet; a SLOW diet. This is due to the fact that many of the people in these cultures grow their own food. Whether it’s a spacious farming operation in Ikaria or a ten metre squared plot in Okinawa, it is a mark of pride, of self-sufficiency for someone to grow their own food. The long-lasting tradition of providing for one’s self and family through this means is deeply embedded in their lifestyle. Not only is it economically valued, it is also valued as an important tool for health.
A small garden operation also offers functional movement opportunities, a daily meditative practice and a degree of purpose in one’s life; all of which may contribute to a longer and healthier life.
In Loma Linda, California, where the community is, in most senses of the word, quite modernised, there is less of an emphasis on growing one’s own food. I think this community is important to consider because it is an exception to the rule. If all longevity cultures grew their own food, one might be led to the assumption that having a garden is the cause of longevity. In Loma Linda, a seventh-day adventist community, there is still a strong emphasis on nutrition with most of the population adopting a whole-food vegetarian or pescatarian way of eating.
Longevity hack: grow your own and visit the local farmers market for your S.L.O.W produce.
“Most people aren’t getting an experience that they love at the gym. They might get a body that they love but they’re not getting an experience that they love. People who spend time in nature have to constantly adapt. That gives you a kind of shape that the gym can’t give you.”
– Daniel Vitalis, author & speaker
Interview for The Longevity Film
Australians sit down for an average of ten hours per day. After about four hours of sitting in one day, our capacity for burning fat and clearing the body of toxins is diminished.
Physical stagnation is not something that the longevity cultures experience. There is a strong theme of constant physical activity in these regions, be it harvesting food from one’s garden or taking a nature walk with friends and family.
As Paul Chek explained to me in California, physical movement pumps lymphatic fluid around the body, strengthens muscles, increases bone density and overall this leads to a healthier existence. Hip fractures are one of the top killers of people over the age of sixty-five and most of these could be prevented by simple movement practices applied in one’s life every single day.
When you mention movement, most people think of their exercise routine; the gym, yoga, pilates or going for a run. In the longevity cultures movement is equated with life.
In Ikaria, one can expect to climb dozens of steep stairs throughout the day in order to achieve daily tasks. Added to which are gardening chores, social and work obligations which all incite movement. In Okinawa, people’s social schedules demand that they spend a large portion of the day moving between locations on foot, climbing stairs, dancing and singing (not to mention the gardening!). As part of the Seventh-day Adventist religion, a weekly sabbath is implemented into people’s lives in Loma Linda. This means that from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown time is taken to relax, connect with friends and family, and to prepare for a Sunday service. Often, this time is spent on a nature walk which is encouraged in their scriptures.
The key idea here is that movement is embedded into the longevity cultures’ way of life. In ‘the West’, we have to carve time out of our lives to move before going back to sit at our desks whereas in the blue zones movement is simply a part of every day living.
Longevity hack: got a meeting, phone call or friendly catch up? Do them whilst going for a walk!
“You have 50% less risk of dying early if you have strong links to family and friends.”
Dr. Ali Walker, social scientist
Interview for The Longevity Film
In the blue zone cultures, people have a very strong sense of community. When I spoke with Thea Parikos of Thea’s Inn in Ikaria, she said that because the population on the island is so small, everybody knows each other. The result of this situation is that there is a sense of accountability with one’s actions because ‘if you do something bad everyone will know about it.’
We need to re-approximate our own versions of these communities in our own lives. I say re-approximate instead of ‘mimic’ because it is impossible for most of us to live in a society where everybody knows each other; our cities are simply too big for that. What we can do, though, is create sub-communities amongst our towns, our suburbs, even our streets or apartment buildings. By developing a shared sense of fate, of ownership and accountability of a geographical area we can break down the inherent awkwardness of getting to know strangers. These relationships often progress from ‘acquaintance’ to ‘friends’ quite quickly and can offer a very tangible buffer for the human need to socialise and feel safe in a community.
In my home town on the northern beaches of Sydney, I surround myself with friends of all ages. We are mostly likeminded (although this isn’t essential), we participate in the same activities such as surfing and the creative arts, but more importantly we’ve created a situation where we bump into each other constantly. On the street, in the surf, in a cafe or on the yoga mat! This is important because, in today’s busy times, trying to ‘force’ a scheduled ‘community appointment’ can sometimes feel a little inauthentic and awkward. By creating a lifestyle where you ‘can’t walk down the street without bumping into someone’ we can actually enjoy a beautiful situation that is set up for a feeling of safety, security and engagement with our community!
Longevity hack: integrate community minded activities such as surfing, walking groups, volunteering or cafe visits into your lifestyle so that community engagement becomes embedded into your life.
Of the four pillars of longevity & wellness, what I found most tangible during my time with the graceful agers was their attitude. All of the people that I met in the longevity cultures had a great attitude toward life. They were stoic in a way, smug even, and brought such an overarching sense of confidence that it made me just want to be around them.
As we know from recent scientific research, the mind and body are intimately connected. In fact, this phenomena has been discussed throughout history all the way back to Hippocrates’ time, but the recent evidence suggests that the way we think and approach life determines to a large extent our physical expression of health.
Many of the blue zone inhabitants have a challenging history which they have lived through; Okinawa and Ikaria have been deeply affected by war and the living inhabitants today still remember those times. Yet the people in these longevity cultures are happy, delightfully so, and look back on such times as momentous teachers of humility, faith and perseverance. It also reminds them to be grateful for peaceful modern times and to be deeply present in each day, without overthinking the past or future.
People in longevity cultures live a purposeful life. They know why they get up in the morning. In Okinawa this is known as one’s ikigai, a reason for living, and all of the graceful agers whom I interviewed could clearly articulate their ikigai as soon as I asked them to. Many talked about family and friends, many talked about having ‘too many things to do’ and some just talked about having fun and being happy. If you have a higher purpose for which you exist, it will add years to your life.
Having a clear purpose leads to an attitude of strong will, it leads to a clarity of priorities in life and develops a significant amount of emotional resilience. When people are resilient, they are more humble, affable and contented and this was certainly the case with the people I met in Okinawa, Ikaria & Loma Linda.
Longevity hack: find ways to cultivate gratitude for every thing that you have and every one who you have in your life. Find something you love to do, and do more of it!
By appreciating these essential pillars of longevity and wellbeing, we can absolutely add ten high quality years to our life. According to research discussed in The Longevity Film, ageing is only 25% genetic; the rest is determined by how we choose to live. By making small, positive choices every single day we can turn the tide in our favour by switching on our longevity genes, down-regulating inflammation, protecting our mitochondria and developing a happy and purposeful attitude toward life.
This article was brought to you by The Longevity Film 2019 worldwide cinema tour and the soon to be released Longevity Book!