Forget fad diets, crazy workouts and syrupy self-help cliches. Longevity expert Dan Buettner tells Nona Walia how a long life begins with making simple, common sense habits a natural part of your daily routine.
Dan Buettner knows the secret to longevity.
His mantra: set up your life, home and social environments, as well as your workplace so that you are constantly nudged into behaviours that favour longevity. It’s something the explorer, educator and author follows himself: he’s the holder of three separate Guinness World Records for distance biking — a 15,500-mile ride from Alaska to Argentina in 1987 as a 27-year-old; a 12,888-mile journey across the Soviet Union in 1990; and a 12,172-mile jaunt through Africa completed in 1992! But it was his research on longevity first published in the National Geographic magazine that really established his expertise on the subject.
In his book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, he reveals, “Adopt the right lifestyle; chances are you may live up to a decade longer…”Excerpts from an interview:
What attracted you to exploring the idea of living longer?
When I travelled around the world, I discovered that living longer has less to do with diet, or even exercise, and more to do with the environment you live in: social and physical. The world’s oldest people live rewardingly inconvenient lives. They walk to the store and to their friends’ homes and live in houses set up with opportunities to move mindlessly. So, that set me thinking. Along with a team of scientists, I explored five parts of the world — ‘Blue Zones’ where people live long lives. We found a bronze-age culture in Sardinia’s interior where there are more male centenarians; a peninsula in Costa Rica where 50-year-olds have a higher chance of reaching 90; a Greek island completely free of Alzheimer’s; and islands in southern Japan where people are prone to one-sixth the average risk of heart disease.
Which cultures have cracked the mystery of a long and happy life?
Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.
What are the secrets of healthy centenarians?
The secrets lie in everyday living. The people who live longest live in strong families that keep them motivated to support loved ones. Centenarians are still living near their children. Instead of being mere recipients of care, they contributors to the lives of their families. They grow vegetables, and continue to cook and clean. This has a powerful two-fold effect — their children and grandchildren benefit from their wisdom while the centenarians themselves feel the motivation to stay active, to get out of bed in the morning.
We know from the Framingham studies that happiness, smoking and obesity are all ‘contagious’. If three of your closest friends are obese, there’s a 70 per cent chance that you’ll be overweight. For this reason, centenarians proactively surround themselves with people who practise the right behaviours. These are people whose idea of fun is gardening or swimming, who eat meat sparingly, are trusting and trustworthy, and have faith.
How important is spirituality to a person’s well-being?
Religious faith is the one element that most centenarians have in common. Even among the non-religious, those with spiritual beliefs are less depressed, have better immunity and lower rates of heart disease. They tend to have larger social networks, more social support and a greater sense of purpose.
What is the optimal diet for making it to a healthy 90?
Meat is more of a condiment than a staple diet. Moderate drinking has positive benefits. Most people who live longer eat plant-based diets, heavy on beans (fava, black beans, soy) and nuts. They do eat meat but usually as a celebratory food perhaps once or twice a week and in small portions (think the size of a deck of cards). Oddly, they don’t eat much fish either. No one is “on a diet”. They typically eat their largest meal at the beginning of the day while dinner is the smallest.
The Okinawans specially practise eating until they are 80 per cent full, so they don’t overeat. To aid this practice, make food look bigger, use smaller plates, make snacking a hassle, eat more slowly, and have a seat! Eat meals with your family — with the TV and computer switched off — if you want to consume fewer calories.
What is the key to living to 100?
The key lies in simple things. Get 105 minutes of mindless physical activity every day. Move mindlessly. Live in strong families that keep you motivated. And live out of a purpose.
What are the roadblocks?
People in general don’t stick to doing anything for very long. After smoking, stress is probably the most harmful thing for your body. Chronic stress builds chronic inflammation, which leads to premature ageing.
Drive down any street at 9 pm and you can see the greenish glow of the television or the computer in people’s windows. This urban trend of isolation is a mistake. It shaves good years off your life.
If you eat a perfect diet but are stressed out all day, you are not going to live longer or better. Socialising with the right people, having a sense of purpose, and a routine of downshifting are inextricably intertwined.
Nine secrets to a long life
Move: Find ways to stay active
Plan de vida: Discover your purpose in life
Downshift: Take a break
80% rule: Don’t overeat
Plant power: Choose greens
Red wine: A glass a day
Belong: Stay social
Beliefs: Get ritualistic
Your tribe: Family matters