Many people in the United States seem to be living the antithesis of the way these long-lived people in the Blue Zones do. Considering it has taken millenniums for these four cultures to yield lifestyles aligned with long, healthy lives, can we in America realistically change?
Yes. One of the happy coincidences is most of these "Power 9" are not hard, and a subtle shift of energy can yield an enormous benefit. For example, the idea that having happy hour could more powerfully impact your life than going to the gym seems so flippant, but it's not. In the Blue Zones, these spry centenarians never signed up for diets or belonged to gyms, but they hung out with groups of people who supported the same behaviors. We know that the power of moderate drinking is probably worth three to five good years of life if you can pick up that habit and not make it immoderate. Did you learn anything about physical activity from this long-lived group?
The big "aha" in all of this is that the things that will help me add a dozen or so years to life—or help me stay younger—are not things that are expensive or even require a lot of effort. I hate going to the gym; I quit doing it. I used to be a world-record cyclist; now I bike for fun. Right now, the key for me is not running marathons or doing triathlons, though I've done that in my life. The key is low-intensity physical activity. Moving does not have to hurt. I think that's a mistake a lot of Americans make. What about eating habits?
The centenarians had little strategies to keep from stuffing themselves, whether it was eating off smaller plates [or] murmuring a Confucian adage before their meal to remind themselves to stop eating before their stomach was 80 percent full. They eat a big breakfast; we've now discovered that people who consume a big breakfast eat fewer calories throughout the day. They never eat in front of a TV; you tend to eat mindlessly in front of the TV. They eat with family. What have you personally learned from long-lived people in the Blue Zones?
No. 1, I've identified things I like to do. For example, my dad and I just got a garden plot in Roseville, Minn., and he and I garden once a week. I spend a lot more time and energy on my kids. Two, when I go to the grocery store, I do not buy meat. The longest-lived people of the world eat meat less than one time per week. Three, I've gone back to church. I just sort of forced myself because of what I saw. People who go to church or temple or mosque, say, are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, have lower rates of depression, lower rates of suicide, and tend to have a support group. Once a week, they have scheduled stress reduction, either prayer or just taking their mind off the insanity of everyday living. Did you learn anything about death?
The longest-lived parts of the world venerate elders. As you approach death, you actually become more respected, whereas I think social capital peaks at about age 24 in America—just look at a billboard or flip through a magazine to see what people we most respect. They tend to be young, good-looking people. Along with this book, you've created a website called bluezones.com, which offers a place for a like-minded community of people interested in attaining long, healthy lives. What's this "vitality compass" on the site?
I've worked three years with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health to create this life expectancy calculator, a distillation of 337 studies. It'll calculate your life expectancy, your healthy life expectancy, your biological age, the number of years you could add if you optimize your lifestyle. It'll also give you up to eight suggestions, customized to you. The first step in changing behaviors is knowing how you're doing. You need an assessment tool. According to this tool, how long can you expect to live?
The vitality compass gives me to 99.