When I first reported on this area a decade ago, scientists theorized that #genes played a role in the extraordinary longevity of Sardinians. This enclave of 14 villages is home to one of the world’s most genetically homogenous populations, second only to that of Iceland.
Since then, the notion of a genetic advantage has been called into question. According to Dr. Pes, several studies have shown that the genetic markers of the centenarians—including markers associated with cardiovascular mortality, cancer and inflammation—don’t diverge significantly from those of the general population.
More than 65% of what people in the blue zones ate came from complex #carbohydrates: sweet potatoes in Okinawa, Japan; wild greens in Ikaria, Greece; squash and corn in Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. Their diet consists mainly of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and other carbohydrates. They eat meat but only small amounts, about five times a month, usually on celebratory occasions.
What we found in Sardinia is similar in other blue zones. None of the spry centenarians I’ve met over the years said to themselves at age 50, “I’m going get on that longevity diet and live another 50 years!” None of them bought a treadmill, joined a gym or answered a late-night ad for a supplement.
Instead, they lived in cultures that made the right decisions for them. They lived in places where fresh vegetables were cheap and accessible. Their kitchens were set up so that making healthy food was quick and easy. Almost every trip to the store, a friend’s house, work or school occasioned a walk. Their houses didn’t have mechanized conveniences to do house work, kitchen work or yard work; they did it by hand.
People in the blue zones were nudged into physical activity every 20 minutes, my team estimated. This activity not only burned 500 to 1,000 calories a day; it also kept their metabolisms humming at a higher rate.
Americans spend about $110 billion a year on diets, exercise programs and supplements, but self-discipline is a muscle that fatigues. Research shows that such short-term efforts fail for almost everyone in less than three years. By contrast, successful strategies to avoid disease and yield longevity require decades of adherence—or entire lifetimes