I was flipping through a magazine the other day when my eye caught an ad colored an extraordinary shade of blue.
It was for a face serum by Chanel.
“Longevity ingredients from the world’s blue zones,” it read.
Sounds great, but…
What in the world are Blue Zones?
If you want to live a longer, healthier life, any number of gurus will try to sell you on their particular anti-aging angle.
Some examine aging at the DNA level. Others recommend nourishing the body with the best superfoods on the planet. Still others conduct research on the world’s most genetically blessed women.
But Dan Buettner did something different.
He put on his backpack and bought a plane ticket.
Dan was no stranger to leading expeditions. He’d “followed the 45th parallel around the world … retraced Darwin’s route in the Galapagos and followed Marco Polo’s trail on the Silk Road.” 
This time, he wanted to try something different.
He approached National Geographic with an idea. Would they be interested in a story on the world’s “longevity hotspots”? These were places in the world where people lived unusually long, healthy lives.
They said yes. The National Institute on Aging threw in a grant. And Dan was ready to go.
He knew that only 10% of aging is biologically determined. How fast we age is largely based on our lifestyle: the environment we live in, the rhythm of our days, how well we look after our health.
But instead of looking at the individual factors that influence health and longevity, he decided at cultures that promoted longevity.
It’s strange to think of our culture affecting our health.
Surely health is a matter of the choices you make on a personal level, not the environment you live in.
Dan would disagree.
Your environment influences you to make certain choices.
For example, if you live in an area with high traffic density and few sidewalks, you’re not going to be walking as much as someone who lives in a pedestrian-friendly city.
If you live in an apartment block where you don’t even know your own neighbors, you’re going to experience more social isolation than if you lived in a village where every single soul said hello.
Some cultures make healthy living easy, while other cultures throw up roadblocks.
Dan wanted to know which cultures were best at promoting health.
So he honed in on places with an unusually high percentage of centenarians, or people who live past 100.
He identified five—one in Japan, one in Italy, one in Greece, one in Costa Rica, and one in the United States—and called them “Blue Zones.”
Then he tried to find out what they had in common, these 5 unique and vastly different communities across the world.
I doubt Dan expected that his story for National Geographic would end up spawning several bestselling books, a lucrative company, a TED talk, and a social movement … but it did.
Something about the idea of “Blue Zones” caught the public imagination.
Today, you can find information on the Blue Zone diet, Blue Zone projects at work in selected American cities, and any number of unrelated products—like the Chanel serum—capitalizing on the public’s familiarity with the term.
But you don’t need to hand over money to adopt Blue Zone habits.
The world’s most long-lived people don’t have access to secret anti-aging elixirs. They’re not rubbing special creams on their face or taking expensive supplements. They don’t even diet or exercise—at least, not in the way health gurus preach.
Instead, they lead the same simple, healthful lifestyle their ancestors did, which includes:
- Lots of physical movement. Blue Zoners walk everywhere. They chop wood, tend their gardens, and have plenty of sex. You won’t find them setting aside special time for exercise, because movement is built into their day.
- A simple diet. Blue Zoners eat a wide variety of plant-based foods with hardly any processed foods. They’re not drinking soda or snacking on chips.
- Portion control. Blue Zoners are mindful of how much they eat, and they savor the pleasure of food.
- The occasional glass of alcohol. Blue Zoners aren’t heavy drinkers, but they do enjoy an occasional glass of wine or other spirits.
- A strong life purpose. Blue Zoners don’t work their fingers to the bone only to plop down in an armchair when they retire. They work throughout their life on things that matter to them, ensuring they always have a reason to wake up every morning.
- Time to relax. The first time I visited Europe, I was astonished to find out that entire cities shut down on a Sunday. People went home and spent time with their families. Why would they do that? I thought to myself. Now I know. Scheduling downtime into your schedule fosters health. It’s good to unplug and take a break from stress.
- Faith. Blue Zoners belong to every religion you can imagine, but they have one thing in common: their faith gives them a sense of belonging. They’re able to see their human problems from a larger perspective.
- Family. Blue Zoners have close connections to their families.
- A tribe. Sometimes, you have to make your own family. Blue Zoners do. They combat isolation by leaning on their strong social network.
Given that Chanel wants us to believe we can turn back time by applying a special cream, it’s reassuring to know that science says otherwise.
If you want to live a long, healthy life, then look at your environment. If you’re stressed out, isolated, eating convenience foods, and sitting at a desk all day, changing those patterns will do more for you that buying an expensive supplement.
We can’t all live in Blue Zones, but we can create our own oases at home.