As the modern wellness trend grows, more travelers are incorporating health-focused activities into their trips — from yoga retreats to vegan food tours. But there are a handful of destinations around the world where wellness isn’t a conscious goal, but an ancient way of life, and whose inhabitants live remarkably long and happy lives: they’re called the Blue Zones.
What is a Blue Zone?
Blue Zones are regions of the world where people live much longer than average. There are only five Blue Zones.
Since the early 2000s, National Geographic Fellow and bestselling author Dan Buettner has been studying these Blue Zones — a term coined in the original demographic study which inspired him — to understand why people in these regions are living longer than anyone else on earth.
What makes Blue Zones so special?
The answer varies, but generally, people in all five Blue Zones enjoy an active lifestyle surrounded by friends and family. They tend to be religious/have a belief system and eat plant-based foods; but there are geographical and cultural components too, which are best experienced on the ground.
These are the world's five Blue Zones.
With an aging population and millions of people living alone, Japan is experiencing a loneliness epidemic, which is linked to higher rates of depression, dementia and heart disease. But on the island chain of Okinawa, tight-knit communities are bucking the trend — and living even longer as a result. More people here reach the age of 100 than almost anywhere else on earth. So what’s their secret?
Some put it down to moai, traditional social groups formed in childhood and continued throughout adulthood with regular meet-ups. These networks provide lifelong friendship, as well as practical, spiritual and financial support. Centenarians also credit ikigai, having a sense of purpose, as a driver of longevity. That purpose often includes growing their own vegetables such as sweet potato, goya (bitter melon) and kabocha squash, all known for their health benefits. Diet-wise, the mantra ‘hara hachi bu’ — eat until you’re 80% full — may also be a factor.
Learn the art of endurance at a homestay in the rural village of Ogimi on Okinawa Island, where you can witness the locals’ laid-back approach to timekeeping and hear the elders’ life stories. Go for lunch at Emi No Mise, famed for its longevity bento set, or go in search of the fountain of youth on a hike to one of the region’s many waterfalls.
Okinawa: secrets for a long and happy life
For Sardinians, longevity is in their genes — the M26 genetic marker, to be precise. There are nearly 10 times more centenarians per capita here than in the US, but experts think that this comes down to more than just biology.
In the mountainous province of Nuoro, Sardinia’s traditional lifestyle prevails; people take gentle exercise every day, eat fresh, seasonal food including lots of whole grains and little meat, and older generations remain a celebrated part of society. Locals ascribe their long-lasting health in part to their physical labor, and the strong island winds which keep the air they breathe clean. Then there’s the wine — the local grape variety Cannonau has two or three times more artery-friendly flavonoids than other wines and is often drunk in moderation with both lunch and dinner.
Want in? Immerse yourself in nature by volunteering on an organic farm through organizations such as WWOOF, where you will live alongside local people, eating home-cooked meals and spending your days working the land. If you’re short on time (after all, we won’t all live to 109) visit Sella & Mosca vineyard, or learn to make minestrone and other death-defying recipes at a cooking class. There’s even a Longevity Tour for wannabe nonagenarians.
Nicoya, Costa Rica
Beans, beans, the magical fruit, the more you eat the more you… get out of life? It would appear so in Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, home to the longest-lived people in all of the Americas, where the health-boosting triumvirate of squash, corn and beans known as las tres hermanas (the three sisters) grow in harmony and provide the perfect balance of carbs, protein and fibre. Corn is still prepared the traditional Mayan way: soaking it in slaked lime or ash before grinding, which releases the corn’s niacin, reducing toxins and allowing the body to absorb more calcium, iron and minerals.
Having a sense of purpose (plan de vida), an optimistic outlook, strong family ties and regular exercise are all said to contribute to longevity here. Throw in a healthy dose of vitamin D (aka sunshine), nutrient-packed tropical fruits, calcium-rich water and widespread spirituality and it would appear you have the recipe for a long, happy and healthy life. Brave the crowds the week before Easter to witness locals’ faith in action at Semana Santa festivities, or de-stress on the beach in Santa Teresa or Montezuma. Learn to make your own corn tortillas at a homestay or cooking class — and don’t forget to eat your beans.
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A third of the population of Ikaria makes it to their 90s. Dementia is practically non-existent. So what is it about this lesser-known Greek island that keeps people living longer?
Years of isolation may be a factor; strong winds meant fewer sailors came ashore in centuries past, ensuring that traditional cultures were preserved, and the people, self-sufficient. Occupied by Germans and Italians during the Second World War, and subsequently used as a place of exile for communists, a culture of solidarity emerged, embedding strong social bonds. This paired with a healthy Mediterranean diet — olive oil, red wine, homegrown organic vegetables, local honey and goat’s milk, lacking in refined sugar — and a relaxed pace of living has seen life spans stretch further.
Ikaria’s Blue Zone inclusion has drawn visitors from all over the world and it’s easier than ever to get here – but this rugged island remains unspoiled. Come to soak in the healing waters of spa town Therma, or rediscover your zest for life with a skinny dip on nudist-friendly Nas beach; indulge in afternoon naps, drink wine linked to longevity (after all, Ikaria is known as the birthplace of Dionysos, God of wine) and join panigyria (traditional feast days) for local food, live music and dancing, where even the oldies are likely to stay up until the wee hours. One tip: leave your watch at home.
Loma Linda, California
Los Angeles might be known for SoulCycle, smoothie joints and Lululemon-clad joggers, but you’ll need to head east to find California’s healthiest people. In Loma Linda, a population of around 9000 Seventh-day Adventists are known to live around a decade longer than other US citizens, most likely due to their plant-based diets and religious practices. Churchgoing and Bible study groups create dependable social circles, while observing the Sabbath allows time to unwind. Avoiding alcohol, taking regular exercise and eating plenty of fresh vegetables and whole grains keeps disease at bay too.
Get a taste of the good, long life at Loma Linda Farmer’s Market, which sells no meat, poultry or seafood, or take a gentle hike in Hulda Crooks Park, named after longtime resident and mountaineer nicknamed Grandma Whitney, who scaled hundreds of peaks between the age of 65 and 91 and lived until the grand age of 101.
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