The secret to living longer

Scattered all over the world are mysterious pockets of people who live past 100. What secrets can Australians, who should be living longer, learn from these ‘lands of immortality’?

Our life expectancy is one-quarter genes, three-quarters lifestyle choices, according to a classic Danish study of twins. (1) So what lifestyle choices are most conducive to longevity? Dan Buettner, a National Geographic researcher, is on a mission to find out. He believes the answer lies within ‘Blue Zones’, areas where people live to 100 at 10 times the average rate. By examining Blue Zones around the world, he has developed a formula that could extend your life. (2)

Invisible exercise

Okinawa is one of these Blue Zones. An archipelago about 1,300 kilometres south of Tokyo, the island has been described by researchers as the ‘ground zero of longevity’. It has the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world and women live longer there than anywhere else on the planet. Dementia and heart disease, a leading cause of death in Australia, are essentially non-existent.

Blue Zone communities don’t devote a part of their day to exercise like we do (or attempt to), instead it is seamlessly woven into their lives.

Without grocery stores or machines, Okinawans are constantly exercising through activities such as walking and gardening.

Hara, Hatchi, Bu (and repeat)

Gardens don’t just provide Okinawans with exercise and peace of mind. They’re also the source of Okinawan’s plant-based diet, a diet shared by all Blue Zones.

Moderate drinking doesn’t go astray either. Buettner even recommends making ‘Wine at 5’ a key part of your lifestyle to increase longevity.

However, it’s not what you eat, but how you eat it. ‘No diet in the history of the world has ever worked for more than 2 percent of the population,’ says Buettner. So rather than going on the next fad diet, adopt a Blue Zone strategy for healthy eating. Hara, Hatchi, Bu is an ancient Okinawan phase, spoken before meals that reminds you to stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full.  The Okinawans also put away food after serving instead of leaving out a buffet.

No man is an island on these islands

The Blue Zones all share a deep sense of community.  In Okinawa, you are born into a Moai, or a friendship circle, that provides financial and emotional support for life, creating a feeling of always being cared for.

The idea of finding the ‘right tribe’ is crucial to health and happiness. Your chance of being overweight dramatically increases if your friends are overweight too, according to 2007 study from Harvard and the University of California.

This suggests that choosing friends who are physically engaged, caring and healthy will make you healthier too.

Blue Zones also revere the elderly, who often live with their younger relatives. Living together produces beneficial effects for both parties, even lowering rates of mortality and disease in children (known as the Grandmother effect).

It seems the key to longevity is not made up of gym workouts and high-protein salads. Instead, according to Buettner’s research, Blue Zones across the world all seem to show the same thing: there is no pill or supplement. Just your friends and family, the right activities and eating your veggies.

  1. Herskind, A. M., McGue, M., Holm, NV., Sørenson, T.I., Harvald, B. & Vaupel, J.W. Human Genetics. 1996, March. 97(3): 319–23.
  2. Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic. 2009.


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