The man who unlocked the world's secret to living to age 100 says you can skip the gym

hbrueck@businessinsider.com (Hilary Brueck)
Dan Buettner

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Dan Buettner, a continent-trekking cyclist and storyteller, figured out that the world consisted of at least five "Blue Zones," in the early 2000s. That's when he made the term, which was first coined by the European demographers Michel Poulain and Gianni Pes, a household phrase in a best-selling cover story for National Geographic.

In this handful of hidden corners scattered across the globe, he discovered that people were sailing past the 100-year mark with surprising frequency, and often avoiding dementia

People residing in these Blue Zones are outliving us because they have figured out what others have not, according to Buettner. They consistently eat a healthful diet, and they also move around about every 20 minutes or so during each day. 

But he says it took him years after that initial discovery to figure out exactly why the rest of us are getting the simple diet and exercise formula so wrong. 

"People start thinking that the entrance way to a healthier lifestyle — for most Americans — is through their mouths," he told Insider. "But the core tenant of Blue Zones, and it took me about 10 years to realize what I'm about to tell you, none of them have better discipline, better diets, better individual responsibility, they don't have better genes than us." 

Instead, "they live a long time because longevity happens to them," Buettner said.

okinawa blue zone

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The homegrown, plant-based diets of the Blue Zones residents are only about half of the longevity equation, Buettner estimates. The rest is about making healthy choices the easiest ones by turning them into instinctual rituals of daily life that people don't have to think about or use willpower to fight for.

Namely, Blue Zones residents — found in Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California — move consistently through each day, live with purpose, and do it all with a little help from their friends.

Buettner reverse-engineered a "Blue Zone" in rural Minnesota, and people there lost four tons of fat

Buettner has successfully trialed this holistic approach in cities and towns across the US, with stunning success. In 2009, he piloted his first "Blue Zones Project" in Albert Lea, Minnesota. The goal was to reverse-engineer it into a Midwestern Blue Zone.

"If you want to live longer and be healthier, don't try to change your behaviors, because that never lasts for the long run," he said. "Think about changing your environment."

For Albert Lea, that meant the town of roughly 18,000 people was pushed to do more daily movement, with citywide changes that turned healthful actions into the simplest choices.

The city added 10 miles of sidewalks and bike lanes for its residents, and local businesses made it easier to pick and eat healthy food. People started walking more and creating their own strolling groups that hit the streets together, collectively shedding 4 tons of weight (an average of 2.6 pounds per person). Smoking went down by 4% during the first five years of the program.

"When I started four years ago, I had high cholesterol and high blood pressure," Albert Lea City Council Member Al Brooks told MinnPost in 2015, saying he started walking 2.5 miles a day since the city turned into a Blue Zone. "My cholesterol is lower, my blood pressure is 116/70, and I lost 15 pounds."

nicoya costa rica blue zone

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Buettner has now consulted with dozens of other "Blue Zone Project" cities around the US that are trying his "ecosystem approach" to health and longevity, and saving millions of dollars in health insurance costs in the process.

The city of Fort Worth, Texas, for example, reduced its smoking rate 6% after partnering with Buettner in 2013. Fort Worth now saves an estimated $268 million annually as a result of that one action alone.That figure doesn't even account for the tens of millions of dollars in other health care costs saved because of Blue Zone-inspired programs in the city.

sardinia blue zone

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But making it a habit to ditch smoking and move around throughout the day doesn't mean you should neglect eating the crunchy vegetables, beans, fresh herbs, and oils that are so popular in the Blue Zones. Instead, Buettner's eating advice aligns with what nutrition experts and dietitians consistently recommend.

He suggests formulating your diet around plants, including plenty of complex carbohydrates (like beans and whole grains) and making convenience snack foods, desserts, and trips to fast food joints the exception, not the norm. 

"When it comes to longevity, there's no short term fix," Buettner said. "There's no pill or supplement or hormone. If you're not going to do something for years or decades, don't even bother with it."

Buettner's new "Blue Zones Kitchen" cookbook is filled with vegetarian recipes from each of the five Blue Zones, but he says you don't have to buy his tome to try out the eating technique. Instead, find "five or 10 recipes that you love." Then make those foods, along with some consistent, regular movement at home, an integral part of your daily routine. You can even get lazy and skip the gym.

"The secret to eating for 100 is to find the plant-based foods, heavy with beans and grains and vegetables, and learn how to like 'em," he said. 

Update: A previous version of this story mentioned Belgian professor Michel Poulain as the inventor of the phrase "Blue Zone." His work was done in partnership with Italian biochemist and demographer Gianni Pes, whose name we've now included. 

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