by Andy Dappen
Newsweek’s cover story recently focused on the science of healthy living. Most of the story focused on the physical side of the formula – i.e., what empirical data seems to say about what different age groups need to stay healthy.
Newsweek attempted to condense millions upon millions of pages of health-related studies and research into concise, simple guideline that apply to different age groups. They did this by prioritizing the guidelines and recommendations put together by highly reputed disease societies and well-respected task forces. Often these task forces are not in complete agreement and their guidelines change over time – so even the experts about any given topic have no ultimate truths and are taking their best guesses about how to achieve the best health results. Nonetheless Newsweek took their best shot at creating a boiled-down outline for what people in different age groups should focus on if they hope to live long and prosper.
These guidelines are worth studying and following. Nonetheless to my way of thinking, Newsweek’s approach was woefully deficient in accounting for the long term impacts stress has on the body and for developing strategies for positively contending with those mysterious lifestyle and mind-body connections that affect health. Newsweek’s guidelines for most age groups state, “get screened for depression if proper treatment is available,” and that about sums up their approach toward mental health. However, robust mental health – which would include such factors as having a sense of purpose, developing motivations that have you excited to face each day, feeling well-connected to family and friends, developing daily mechanisms for decompressing—is known to be linked to good physical health.
All of which makes me think that the guidelines formulated by studying those pockets of humanity where the average resident reaches the age of 90 (or 100) at five to ten times the rate of the average American have more to tell us than raw scientific data. After all, considerable research, including extensive studies of twins, indicates that genetics accounts for about 20 percent of how our individual health issues unfold. The other 80 percent of our health issues unfold as a result of the lifestyle choices we’ve made.
Writer, Dan Buettner, has researched and written for National Geographic about places around the world where people are living to be 100 at ten times the rate that Americans reach that age. He has also written the book Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Have Lived the Longest. Some of these blue zones where people live the longest are Okinawa, Japan; Ovodda on the island of Sardinia; Loma Linda, California (which has a large Seventh Day Adventist community); and Icaria, an island off the coast of Turkey.
These blues zones have differing cultures, climates, lifestyles, diets, religions, and standards of living, but the recipe for living longer, healthier lives seems to share these common ingredients:
1) People live actively. These are not places where people ‘work out’ like Americans, yet they are places where people live actively – they walk, move, kneel, and garden. They don’t rely on conveniences that make everything about life easier. Living with too many conveniences is probably killing us.
2) All these cultures have a way that people downshift and slow down. Maybe they pray each day, maybe their daily schedule is less regimented, maybe they take a break during the day, but they have ways to slow down and break the inflammatory state created by stress.
3) They have a sense of purpose and sometimes a vocabulary for that purpose. It’s not that everyone has the same sense of purpose but there’s a recognition that individuals need purpose, they need something they’re excited about each day.
4) While there’s no single longevity diet universal to all of these blue zones, in all of them people eat little or no meat, beans and nuts are an important part of the diet, and they rely heavily on fruits and vegetables. Most drink some alcohol but they drink in moderation. And they eat in moderation — obesity is not a problem that sabotages health. Some of these cultures have strategies and vocabularies so as not to overeat. In Okinawa, for example, an expression is used (sometimes at the beginning of a meal) that you will only eat until you’re 3/4s full.
5) These cultures all have strong interpersonal connections and networks. They stress strong families. Families take care of their children and their aging parents. Having and helping friends, neighbors, and others in your congregation is part of the fabric of long-life cultures.
6) Also, being surrounded by the right tribe seems vital for long life. People whose best friends smoke, drink, or overeat, are 50 percent more likely to adopt these unhealthy practices. In long-life cultures, people are surrounded by friends with healthy practices…and so they are drastically more likely to assume good practices.
7) Finally these blue zones are places where lifelong practices beget long life. They’re not about the newest fad, short term fixes, this year’s resolution, or a pill that will fix you. They’re about balanced lifestyles. They’re about how you should live day to day, year to year, and decade to decade.
What does all this personal health and long-life talk have to do with WenatcheeOutdoors and life in Central Washington? A lot actually. We have in this place and in our people the ingredients to live longer, healthier lives than the average American. Here’s how the Blue Zone ingredients above apply to us:
1) Living actively. With quiet streets throughout our towns, most of us have the ability to commute to work on foot or bike. Likewise with trails in and around our towns (e.g., Wenatchee has the Loop, the Ditch, Saddle Rock trails, and Sage Hills trails) most of us have beautiful places where, minutes from home, we can regularly walk, mountain bike, or trail run. Incidentally, regular physical exercise (e.g., walking for an hour four times a week) is, currently, the only known way to reduce the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease (doing crossword puzzles, reading, learning new languages, etc. doesn’t work).
2) Mechanisms to downshift and de-stress. With trails, rivers, and mountains flanking our towns, most of us have the ability to schedule an hour once a day or once every other day to walk, bike, run, paddle, or climb. In minutes, we can access quiet, natural places where we can shift gears, think, get perspective, and shed stress.
3) Sense of purpose. Purpose can take many forms but the nut here is to find things that excite and motivate us. Family and profession may provide some of that purpose but having multiple things that make us excited to tackle each day is good medicine and the outdoors can help in this respect. Being excited about exploring a new trail, improving a trail-running time, pushing our climbing grade, becoming a proficient backcountry skier… all of these fun endeavors can add purpose and joy to each day.
4) Longevity diet. OK, our outdoor lifestyle doesn’t impact this one directly – we need to make some conscious choices here about what we eat and how much we eat. Indirectly, however, all of the activities possible here in Central Washington give us fun ways to shed calories and prevent obesity. Being overweight undermines health on multiple levels.
5) Interpersonal connections and community. We need to focus on building strong families and connecting with our neighbors. This can happen in many ways, including getting outdoors with them on walks, rides, and adventures. Feeling a sense of community also entails casting a wider net of social connections. Connection to charities or church congregations can provide this. So can a connection to the church of the outdoors and the congregation of fellow outdoor enthusiasts. Outdoor enthusiasts in this area are open, welcoming people and through local clubs (biking, paddling, running, triathlons), local activity groups (for climbing and backcountry skiing), and local conservation groups (Land Trust, Barn Beach, Wenatchee Sportsmen’s) it’s easy to become part of the local outdoor culture and community. See this link if you want help connecting to all this.
6) Being part of the right tribe. Adventure-sport and outdoor enthusiasts tend to be a crowd focused on healthy eating habits, exercise, improving their skills, living with passion… Being part of this tribe translates into exposure to healthy habits that are likely to be contagious.
7) Living a balanced lifestyle over the long term. Incorporating all of this into a maintainable, long-term lifestyle is doable here in Central Washington. The ingredients to live unusually long and healthy lives surround us. All that’s missing is some planning and personalization to make all of this work for you
This post was originally published on 7/22/10.