Dan Buettner has spent the past two decades traveling to five longevity hot spots around the globe.
He's found that these so-called Blue Zones share some key things in common.
People in Blue Zones eat a local, plant-based diet, move consistently, and find purpose in their community.
Dan Buettner is always on the move. I could hear his slightly labored breathing on the other end of the phone while conducting the interview for this article. He's walking around his bustling neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis as he takes this mid-morning call (the reception is better outside, anyway).
Back at home, he's already got a pot of soup slow cooking as he strolls. Tonight, he'll be eating minestrone for dinner.
Buettner, 63, has become a living, breathing, bean-eating example of the lifestyle he's spent two decades studying and sharing. In a way, he's created his own longevity Blue Zone.
When he first started this quest to figure out what makes some communities of people live on average about a decade longer than others while maintaining their good health, he figured there might be some secret potion. Maybe there was some powerful antiaging compound these people were all ingesting regularly or some unique superfood they knew about that we could all benefit from. What he found was that in the world's five original Blue Zones, there's actually a wide array of things, a buffet of behaviors and foods, that when taken together, add up to more years of healthy life for the locals.
"I was hoping to isolate that one silver bullet that you could sort of import back," Buettner told Insider. "I discovered it was really a silver buckshot. Lots of little things, but the same little things."
Whether he traveled to Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, California; Ikaria, Greece; or Sardinia, Italy, the life-giving commonalities stood out. People enjoyed certain types of foods, certain kinds of connections with friends and family, and certain movement routines that seemed to be naturally woven into their days.
Buettner's spent the past 20 years identifying these foods and behaviors with stunning success, and now he's letting us in on the secret recipe. He's chronicled it all in a new book out today, "The Blue Zones Secrets for Living Longer: Lessons From the Healthiest Places on Earth," with a Netflix docuseries on the topic premiering on Wednesday. Both the book and the four-part series promise to unlock the Blue Zones' tried-and-true secrets for living longer.
But Buettner's already a pro at all this. He's incorporated many of the Blue Zones secrets into his own life, inspired by his travels to the world's longevity hot spots and all the people he's met who are successfully living out these shared principles, day after day.
Buettner has a 'mindless' approach to physical activity
Buettner has always been an outdoor enthusiast. When he was younger, he biked around the world, literally, from north to south through the Americas. He traced a line down Africa and then around the 45th parallel (that's the line halfway between the equator and the North Pole — and it just so happens to cut through Minneapolis, as well as the French Pyrenees and Russia).
But ever since Buettner started studying the world's five Blue Zones, he's adopted a simple maxim for movement that anyone can try out, no matter their fitness level: just get up.
"One of the big things I believe is, do something active every day, but make it something you love," he said. There's no point in picking up new activities you're not going to have fun doing, because it won't last, he said. And if it won't last, it's not going to contribute to your overall longevity.
"In Blue Zones, that might be gardening or it might be following your sheep up into the pasture," he explained. "In America, for me, it's pickleball, and it's standup paddle surfing, and it's walking, and it's biking with my friends."
Walking and biking are also Buettner's preferred forms of transportation, and he makes sure to live in places where he can walk or bike to do almost all of his errands. He says one of the only places he routinely drives his car is to the airport to pick up friends who come into town.
Living a walkable life is one of the biggest ways Buettner thinks we can all extend our longevity. Starting at the street level — quite literally — changing our environment to make it one that naturally nudges us to move and connect with others throughout the day.
Buettner has a road-tested blueprint for turning American cities into Blue Zones
Turning streets into Blue Zones won't be an individual-level fix. It requires constructing walkways and bike paths for people, instead of just lanes for cars and street parking. Buettner knows it's a somewhat unpopular idea, and he expects that many will balk at it and say, "We can't do that." He thinks we can.
"In America, on average, the street gets redone every seven years," he said. "That gives you an opportunity, for little or no extra budget, to make that street walkable and bikeable. Plant some trees and make it aesthetically inviting. Put these streets on a diet."
Since 2009, his 75 Blue Zone projects in cities across the US have aimed to do just this: Bring the longevity lifestyle he's discovered home — while staying practical and culturally appropriate.
"We don't try to go in and convince a million people in Fort Worth, Texas, to eat tofu when they like beef," he said. "We shape their environment so their micro-decisions throughout the day add up to greater measurable health."
A project team of about 25 people typically spends about five years partnering with a city or town that wants to become a Blue Zone, taking a holistic approach to working with the city government, private businesses, and individuals to make longevity-boosting food, exercise, and socializing habits the easier, more fun choice. The results have been good.
When Fort Worth became a Blue Zone, people started getting more exercise, and smoking rates in the city decreased by more than 30%. Healthcare costs tumbled by tens of millions each year.
In Albert Lea, Minnesota, home of the country's first Blue Zone project, the city paved new walking paths, and people signed up to walk and socialize in Okinawan-style "moai" social groups. A local grocery store started carrying more healthy grab-and-go options, and restaurants changed their menus. In short, the formula is: walk more, eat better, and enjoy each other's company.
"It sounds so trite because we've heard it so many times, but we get it wrong in the execution," Buettner said. He raises his voice, as he emphatically insists we won't be healthier until we can shape our everyday environments —from our homes, to schools, offices, restaurants, parks, and all the rest so that we are nudged to unconsciously make good decisions throughout the day, for our bodies, and our relationships.
It's almost the opposite of our current approach: sitting at desks all day then rushing out to the gym, stopping by the drive-thru, or counting calories. In the Blue Zones, movement and diet are more incidental and more mindless than in the US, but also more consistent.
"You're on your feet every time you go to work, or out to eat, or a friend's house," he said.
The 'king of beans' eats his 'superfood' every day
All the Blue Zones are on local, inexpensive, and largely plant-based diets. But they all eat beans — and so does Buettner.
"I believe the only superfood there is in the world is beans," Buettner said.
A community of health-conscious Seventh Day Adventists in the Blue Zone of Loma Linda, who regularly live about a decade longer than their peers in Southern California, enjoy black beans, nuts, and avocados, while centenarian Okinawans traditionally dish up hearty tofu stir-fry with plenty of vegetables.
The self-proclaimed "king of beans'' says his diet today is about 90% whole food and plant-based, similar to what all the Blue Zoners eat (a stark contrast from the 1960s Midwestern diet of hot dogs and mac and cheese that Buettner was raised on).
"In every Blue Zone, they're eating about a cup of beans a day," he said. He encourages all of us to aim for at least half that.
A big reason Americans don't already eat more beans, he suspects, is because we're, well, kind of incompetent.
"Americans don't have a clue on how to make beans taste delicious," he said. "People in Blue Zones, their great genius is they know how to make beans sing — on the way in, not on the way out!"
His cookbooks and how-to guides have tried to make a dent there, with recipes for Italian minestrone, Costa Rican gallo pinto, or Ikarian chickpea soup with lemon and herbs.
Not everything people in the Blue Zones do is as exportable as a bean-soup recipe. Buettner can't bring the calcium-rich drinking water of Nicoya home to Minnesota, and we can't all enjoy the nutrient-rich Cannonau of Sardinia, bursting with about three times the antioxidants of other red wines. Americans would also be hard-pressed to find the kind of raw honey they eat in Ikaria in their local grocery stores.
But much of the ethos of the Blue Zones, the ways that people enjoy life and prosper into old age, actually have very little to do with food at all.
Prioritizing human connection and managing stress is the foundation of the Blue Zone lifestyle
The foundation that undergirds the entire Blue Zone lifestyle is connection, the sense of purpose and meaning that people living in the zones express. In Japan, it's called "ikigai," in Costa Rica, "plan de vida."
At a time when the US surgeon general is warning of a deadly loneliness epidemic across the country, the kinds of connection that people in Blue Zones share with their family, neighbors, elders, fellow churchgoers, and coworkers feel instructive.
"It's an environment that makes it easy for them to live out their purpose — whether it's their family, their religion, or being part of a cohesive community," Buettner said. "That's what works."
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