If you’re hoping to live to 100 and beyond, you might consider becoming a shepherd.
It’s not so much about the sheep, but the miles and miles of daily walking you’d do as part of the job that could help you live a longer and healthier life — like the people who live on the isolated Italian island of Sardinia.
Only 20 percent of how long we live is dictated by genetics. To reach the upper limits of a lifespan, we need a combination of good genes and a host of lifestyle modifications, says Dan Buettner, explorer, National Geographic fellow and author of “The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People.” Buettner spent 10 years searching for spots around the globe that had the highest rates of citizens living to 100.
One of those “Blue Zones” is Sardinia, in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea.
“I call it silver buckshot [approach],” Buettner told NBC’s Cynthia McFadden. “It’s 20 or 30 little things that you can transport from places like Sardinia—and bring them home and have them work for you.”
What we can learn from people in the Blue Zones: Dietary changes, coupled with a healthy amount of exercise, can lead to a much longer life.
In Sardinia, for example, “people [for the most part] were shepherds, a job that requires you to have a lot of physical activity,” Buettner said. “They had mostly a plant-based diet for most of their lives. And I think there’s a level of social connectivity that comes from having to survive in really harsh conditions. It looks beautiful, but life is tough back there.”
Buettner and his team found four other Blue Zones: Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; the Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. As a clear demonstration of the power of lifestyle to extend lifespan, Buettner points to a Sardinian village where there are six centenarians out of 3,000 people as compared to most of America where there’s just one centenarian per every 5,000 people.
One big difference between the average American’s day and those of people from Blue Zones is in how peripatetic they are.
“Our team found that people [in these places] are nudged into physical activity every 20 minutes or so,” Buettner said. “They’re walking to their friend’s house. They’re going down to the garden. They’re kneading bread with their hands. It’s natural movement. It’s something they don’t have to think about. It’s not something that requires discipline.
“If you’re sitting down for more than 90 minutes, your body drops into a hibernative state. And what you ate for breakfast often ends up on your hips. That doesn’t happen here because you’re always in motion.”
Another important factor: The Sardinians eat a plant-based diet that is rich in healthy foods like beans.
“The cornerstone of every Blue Zone diet in the world is beans,” Buettner said. “About a cup of beans a day. If you’re eating a cup of beans a day, it’s probably adding about two years to your life expectancy.”
Ultimately the Blue Zone lifestyle isn’t just about living longer, it’s about living better.
“About 80 percent of chronic disease—cancer, dementia, heart disease and diabetes—is avoidable,” Buettner said. “And what these people are doing better than us is they are avoiding the diseases that foreshorten our lives. They’re not only living a long time; they tend to die quickly without a long period of sickness.”
Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. Jake Whitman is a producer at NBC News.