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This 4-week challenge could help add a decade or more to your life

Design your life around the Blue Zones principles and you may increase your odds of blowing out 90+ candles.
Mature woman meditating in backyard
People in the Blue Zones have a sense of purpose that shapes their lives. The Good Brigade / Getty Images

There are places in the world, called Blue Zones, where people naturally live long, happy, healthy lives. And you don’t have to pack up and move to Okinawa, Japan, or Ikaria, Greece, to increase your lifespan. You can bring the lessons of the Blue Zones to your own life, home, family and neighborhood.

Researchers found out about the Blue Zones after they discovered that genetics is only responsible for about 20% of how long you live. That means other factors are behind 80% of your longevity. By studying the habits and lifestyles of the people who live the longest, we can tease out the common threads and weave them into our own lives.

Dan Buettner wrote the original National Geographic cover story on the Blue Zones, “The Secrets of Long Life,” and a series of books centered around the Blue Zones. His latest book, "The Blue Zones Challenge: A 4-Week Plan for a Longer, Better Life," shows how to optimize your life for better health and longevity. “I am simply distilling what the world longest-living people have done and showing you a way to put it to work in your life,” he told TODAY.

In the Blue Zones, people don’t have to think about making healthy choices. They live in cultures where the healthy choices are the default choices. They mainly eat a plant-based diet. They walk and garden. They spend time with the people they love.

“People in the Blue Zones don’t have better discipline or better adherence to habits or better self-control than we do in America. They simply live in places where the healthy choice is the easy choice. Their unconscious decisions are better throughout the day, and over years and over decades, that’s what works when it comes to longevity,” Buettner said. “It’s not about trying to change your habits, because trying to change your habits usually fails. What we’re asking you to do is make some long-term changes to your surroundings, and then just live in it. And you should live longer and happier.”

The Blue Zones Challenge uses evidence-based nudges to guide you through four weeks that can help you design your environment so you, too, can make healthy choices by default. The challenge starts with self-tests of your vitality, happiness and purpose. After four weeks, you can retake these tests to see how the changes are making a difference in your life.

Over the four weeks of the challenge, you’ll take advantage of opportunities to eat healthy foods, move more, connect with others, and practice other healthy habits from the Blue Zones. “Four weeks is enough time to reshape the environments that are going to make a difference in your life,” Buettner said.

Here are a few key messages from the book.

Connect with people who support your goals

Building your social network is crucial for living a healthy lifestyle. “When you think of longevity, you have to think about things that are going to last for years or decades. And friends, especially our best friends, tend to be in our lives for a long time, and they exert a measurable influence on how we behave,” Buettner said.

You need at least one Blue Zones buddy, and ideally two or three real-life friends who:

  • You can count on to care about you on a bad day.
  • ·Like being active — that could mean walking, tennis, gardening or biking.
  • Eat a primarily plant-based diet.

You might find like-minded people in faith-based groups, plant-based cooking classes, volunteer organizations, Meetup groups, the Blue Zones Life Facebook page, or your neighborhood. You can plan to get together with these people a couple of times a week for a walk or a meal, or connect with short video chats if you don’t live close to each other.

Design your home for better health

Make it easy to default to healthier choices. Start in your kitchen. “If you’re eating a whole-food, plant-based diet, it’s probably worth six years of life expectancy over eating the standard American diet,” Buettner said. He recommends you get an Instant Pot, pressure cooker or Crock-Pot and a good whole-food, plant-based cookbook. Along with your family, find a half-dozen recipes that sound good and cook them together.

“The most important ingredient in any longevity diet is taste,” he said. “What we care about is what tastes good at our next meal.”

 He pointed out that you can still have treats, just save them for when you go out. At home, stock up on healthy foods and eliminate foods that aren’t so good for you, or store them out of view.

Here are a few more healthy home-design tips:

  • Put your walking or running shoes out where they will remind you to use them.
  • Set up a corner with pillows where you can sit and read or work on the floor — getting up and down from the floor builds strength.

Find your purpose

People in the Blue Zones have a sense of purpose that shapes their lives. “We know from good research that comes from the National Institutes on Aging that people who can articulate their sense of purpose live about eight years longer than people who are rudderless,” Buettner said.

Your purpose might come from your work, volunteering, a hobby or your family. 

Thinking about your purpose might take some time, but it’s worth it when you start every day filled with joy and intention. Buettner recommends writing a purpose statement that captures your essence, one where you envision how your life has an impact on the world.

Try these six simple steps

Not ready to commit to the Blue Zones Challenge? Buettner offers a few easy-to-implement tips that can help you live longer:

  • Eat a handful of nuts every day. Nut-eaters live about two years longer than non-nut-eaters.
  • Learn to like beans. Beans are a common food in all the Blue Zones, and eating about a cup a day could add four years to your life expectancy.
  • Keep a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter. Seeing it will nudge you toward a healthy snack.
  • If you drink alcohol, make it wine. Specifically, cannonau wine. That’s a wine made from the grenache grape that the people of Sardinia, Italy, drink — it has three times the healthy polyphenols you’ll find in other wines, he said.
  • ·Get the toaster off your kitchen counter. Most of what we put in toasters is unhealthy, Buettner explained.
  • Plan your meals. It makes grocery shopping — and healthy eating— easier.

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