Saturday, October 03, 2009

Blue Zones Reaction

A few months back I read The Blue Zones by Dan Bleuttner. Following are three pieces of information from the book followed by my reactions to the book.

Herein lies the premise of The Blue Zone. If you can optimize your lifestyle, you may gain back an extra decade of good life you'd otherwise miss. What's the best way to optimize you lifestyle? Emulate the practices we found in each one of the Blue Zones.
    Four Blue Zones
  • Sandinia
  • Okinawa
  • Loma Linda, California
  • Costa Rica
    The Nine Lessons
  1. Move Naturally - Be active without having to think about it
  2. Hara Hachi Bu - Painlessly cut calories by 20 percent
  3. Plant Slant - Avoid meat and processed foods
  4. Grapes of Life - Drink red wine (in moderation)
  5. Purpose Now - Take time to see the big picture
  6. Down Shift - Take time to relieve stress
  7. Belong - Participate in a spiritual community
  8. Loved Ones First - Make family a priority
  9. Right Tribe - Be surrounded by those who share Blue Zone values
In my opinion, the blue zones lessons make sense. They align with published research. Over the last several years I've read books, news articles and subscribed to email services that focus on health and longevity. The consensus appears to emphasise the importance of diet. However, exercise trumps diet and relationships appear to be most important. Each of these can be found in the blue zones lessons.

After reading the book I have three reactions. These are not contained in the book but are my opinions.

First, we live in a time and environment that violates all nine of the principles. Our population is mobile so, for many, family, friends and community are absent. The speed of our lives, popular culture, corporate marketing and the media push us toward processed food that is quick if not nutritious. It appears net participation in a spiritual community -- whether christian, pagan, jewish, muslim, atheist, animism, buddhist, etc -- is declining. Technology (remote controls, elevators, automobiles, power appliances, etc) have deprived many people of movement and natural exercise. Many of us are educated but have not learned stress management. On the contrary, multitasking and a fast paced life are valued. Few people seem to have a sense of purpose, a reason to begin each day, other than to earn money to buy more stuff, to stufficate themselves.

Second, creating a personal blue zone is challenging. It requires courage and a side step out of the crowd to slow the pace and create time. Exercise takes time. Planning, shopping and preparing healthy meals take time. Nurturing family relationships and friendships require time. Stress management and participation in a spiritual community necessitate time. Working 40 hours per week with a commute through congested traffic leaves little time for a blue zone self. Many people have too much debt and must work full time or work multiple jobs.

My third reaction relates to the spiritual aspect and, in part, to the admonition to belong and participate in a spiritual community. My personal religion focuses on evolution. I am an evolutionist. I define religion as beliefs, values and practices that anchor our lives, give us a sense of purpose, enable us to cope with life's passages and provide an ethical guide. I find all of these components in my understanding and interpretation of evolution. I question how we can create a blue zone environment and violate our evolutionary heritage. We evolved to live in small personal communities of about 150 people or fewer. Daily life was controlled by the weather, seasons and cycle of the sun. Natural exercise was abundant. Stress management came naturally through family, clan, evenings around the fire and extreme weather (summer heat, winter cold, heavy rains) that caused people to stop work until the weather improved. Diet was primarily plant based and was void of modern chemicals. We no longer live in this kind of environment and community. Can most of us maximize our longevity, our contentment and the richness of our lives apart from this kind of environment? This is not to say that we should eliminate technology but we should create intentional communities and environments.

Nature or nurture? I think nature is the stronger influence but not the determinate. Recent evidence suggests that our genes may set outer limits but are under the influence of environmental stimuli. By creating a blue zone for ourselves we won't lengthen our lives but we will increase the probability of living to our maximum limit and living with increased quality of life in our last years. Even if we die early due to accident, the richness of our lives will be improved now.

After reading the book I asked myself, "how can I create a personal blue zone?". Diet and exercise are easy. Stress management is doable. Maintaining family connections is more difficult due to distance. Finding and participating in a spiritual community with intellectual honesty and a sense of personal integrity is extremely difficult. (Read that to mean "I won't go to church/synagogue/meeting just because it's expected of me or it may add to my longevity. I have to believe with honesty and be myself rather than conform to some dogma or code of behavor.) Perhaps the most difficult is finding a group with blue zone values to surround myself. These things are difficult but not impossible.

My reaction to the book may sound negative, a condemnation of current American society and culture. So be it.

Mojoman asked about my reaction to the book. He has read the book and written his reaction to it. I haven't read his article yet since I wanted to write mine first because I generally like to form my own opinions before reading or hearing other peoples opinions. He always writes thoughtful articles so I encourage you to read Marathons Not Required.

Browse the Blue Zones website.


Blogger Tim Hodgens said...


Great post as usual Paul.

I also enjoyed and found helpful The Blue Zones. Like you, I also had reservations about the possibility of gaining another decade. But to his credit he wasn't peddling a presto magico system with money back guarantees.

There is no doubt, NO doubt that the principles and practises he outlines are worthwhile and extremely valuable for every person. They enrich on the spot, and continue to pay dividends across time. It's the experience of everyone who starts doing some stretching or weight training, they start feeling better and if they continue they continue in that way to better quality of life in those ways. But what he outlines goes ever so much beyond several rushed trips to the gym or studio.

There are a few other pieces which I would add to your list.

The first and foremost is that the patterns listed in the book are patterns which have been life long or nearly life long.

The second is that there were communities within communities. By this I mean that each clustering of people in the geographical area "bought" into the system and there seemed to be a social contract that they hold high their elderly treasures, but also that they had an expectation that they would also have that respect, etc., when they "got there." I imagine that also carries with it a hidden expectation that you can't be a doofus all your life and then expect to get respect and have people value your input.

The second community within was the smaller grouping of people who met more often and who were more actively supportive of each other.

Secondly, I found the Okinowan idea of "ikigai" very meaningful. The rough translation I carry with me is one's reason for getting out of bed in the morning. It's both personal and interpersonal.

Thirdly, the blue zoners seemed to be world class examples of shedding stress as an active part of their everyday existence.

Oh, and there one's other thing that really stood out in the book to me: be particularly good to your daughters and daughters-in-law, because they will be the ones who will come in most and help out when you need it.

Finally, I totally agree the each person has to personally and practically say ENOUGH! to the hurry up, consume more, isolated, fear-filled and insane dietary practises which collectively form the engine for our economy and life style.

I say it again, I wish we lived closer together but know certainly that you are already well ensconsed in my blue zone.


10/04/2009 05:06:00 AM  
Blogger Alex Pendragon said...

I have yet to read anything written by Paul that WASN'T wonderful, but, all sucking-up aside, what in the hell is going on in Loma Linda CA of all places that would qualify it to be a "blue Zone"? Does everybody there work from home? Are they ALL rich? Have cars been banned from the entire town? Do they all grow their own food? I'm sorry, but outside the occasional commune and survivalist compound, I have never heard of a whole American community so totally populated by rational, thinking creatures who would shun walmart and not need lawns to feel fulfilled. The major obsticles I see to re-establishing sound, safe and sane communities in this day and age are capitalism, mainstream monotheism, agro-business, big pharma, wall street, and conservative philosophies of just about any stripe even remotely involved in government. Pendragon Hold would surely be a "blue Zone" if only I could find a practical way to divorce myself from the influence of all these things that make life in America what it is.

Paul, I would suck it up and move out there to Arizona and that desert invironement of yours if we could truly make it at least 97% blue zone certified..........

10/04/2009 06:28:00 AM  
Blogger Paul said...


I think health management and life in general is like managing money; take care of the pennies now and the dollars will be available later; take care of the moment and health and relationships will be strong later.

I read much about living in the moment and, perhaps, this should be a guide in life. Not to plan for the future, save for the future, expect to retire at some point in the future and "begin living" (as one co-worker stated) but simply to live appropriately in the now. To flip the thought over. If I can't live contentedly in the moment then what quality of life will I have in the future?

One item that caught my attention was the sentence that there is no word for "retire" in Okinawa. I could retire now but why? I can think of only one serious reason why I might retire. I have a sedentary job and I want and need to be more active. However, I can think of more "blue zones" reasons NOT to retire. The book caused me to rethink retirement.

I liked the book's admonition (or was it on the website?) to write down our purpose, our ikiagi. I haven't done that but I have outlined it in my thoughts and am evaluating it. Is it worthy? Will I find it valuable in five or ten years? Does it need to remain valid over time? Perhaps it could and should change as I age. Regardless, like you, I find this meaningful.

I've read some research that indicates long distance relationships can be extremely meaningful, strong and beneficial. I'm a little critical of facebook and some social networking systems but do freely admit they can be a means to helping maintain a long distance blue zone group. Perhaps that can be part of a plan to create a group; find and build relationships with people locally; find and build relationships with people we may never meet in person.

One final thought. In the links that you included in your last email I found a comment about the Amish. With the change in the economy some young Amish families have found themselves in difficulty. It appears they had been lured by media and social pressure to accept some debt. I found this interesting. This caused me to think that blue zones aren't static, permanent entities. They exist only in the now and must be recreated each day or, like the young Amish families, we'll find ourselves living in a gray or purple zone.

10/04/2009 06:53:00 AM  
Blogger Paul said...


I think Tim pointed out something significant. A blue zones is a community within a community.

First, an explanation. A demographer found an area where there was a high concentration of people living to advanced years. He circled the area with a blue marker and, voila, we have a "blue zone". The emphasis in the book is about extending longevity and health in later years. A group of Seventh Day Adventists was identified in Loma Linda that are living to advanced age. The group doesn't shun WalMart or live in a commune but are active in the larger community. However, they form a community within the larger community.

My goal and emphasis isn't to live to an advanced age. It is to maximize my quality of life now and to lay the foundation for healthy independence in my later years. I'm trying to do that where I live. But, if I lived in any location, my efforts would be the same.

In my opinion, blue zones aren't geographical. They are personal and social.

10/04/2009 07:07:00 AM  

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