Dan Buettner knows a little something about longevity. He’s the holder of three separate Guinness World Records for distance biking: a 15,500-mile ride from Alaska to Argentina in 1987, when he was 27; 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 research on longevity first published in National Geographic that really established his bona fides on the subject. The Minnesota native traveled to four countries to study the world’s heartiest humans. In Sardinia, Okinawa, Costa Rica, and Loma Linda, California, Buettner partnered with scientists to examine anomalous pockets where the number of centenarians vastly exceeded the statistical average. These areas became the subject of his book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (National Geographic). This spring Buettner continued his research, visiting a fifth zone, the Greek island of Ikaría in the Aegean Sea.
Despite the tremendous cultural and geographic differences between these distant lands, Buettner has identified common practices that seem to aid in extreme longevity. He calls these “The Power Nine,” or the nine rules any person can follow in the hopes of emulating the world’s longest-living humans.
We caught up with the author and anthropological explorer, now 49 and still based in Minnesota, and asked him about his work, as well as whether living the adventure life offers a speed pass to health and happiness.
Do you consider what you do adventuring?
I’m of the impression that most things sold as expeditions are stunts—bungee cords from hot-air balloons or stunt-y trips up Everest. These things don’t really add to the public discourse. They don’t offer up ideas. In my opinion, expeditions need to add to the body of knowledge or they need to educate.
OK, educate: I don’t want to die at 50. What do I do?
The first step is to think about who you hang out with.
There’s no silver bullet for longevity. I’m not gonna tell you to take a pill. If your three best friends are obese, there’s a good chance you will be. Surrounding yourself with people who don’t smoke or drink too much and who have a spiritual component in their lives has a profound impact over time. Cut out the toxic people in your life and spend time and effort augmenting your social circle with people who have the right values and a healthy lifestyle.
What’s the most important dietary change?
It’s very clear that the more meat you eat, the earlier you die. Cut out as much meat as you can. Don’t cut it out completely. That’s boring. Maybe go down to twice a week. That will have a huge effect. Have turkey on Thanksgiving, but don’t have it every night.
Does fish count?
Yes. None of the Blue Zone populations eat a significant amount of fish. All I can tell you is that it’s animal protein, and none of these cultures eat very much of it. You’re better off with a plant-based diet; that’s indisputable. Longevity is much more a function of what you don’t eat than what you do eat. The only proven way to slow down aging in mammals is caloric restrictions. We should take in about 40 percent fewer calories than we normally eat—but that’s unrealistic. Instead, try the 80 percent rule. In Okinawa they say hara hachi bu, which means eat until you are 80 percent full. How can you consciously cut out 20 percent of your calories? For one thing, eat off of a smaller plate—as Okinawans do. Use a ten-inch plate instead of a 13-inch plate, which is a common size in the U.S.
But booze is OK?
It is. I was most amazed when we discovered that Sardinian wine had at least triple the amount of antioxidants of any known wine, and Sardinians drink this wine with great frequency and gusto. So you say, wow, here’s an easy explanation. But it’s not that simple. You don’t see that in Okinawa, for example. They drink some sake, but not much.
I found it surprising that all of the Blue Zones consume pork, which probably has the worst reputation in the U.S.
Pork is interesting. It’s an anomaly and I would not have guessed it, but I can’t deny it. One Okinawan scientist studied this. His theory, and I’m not sure I agree with it completely, is that because pig is the most genetically similar to humans, there’s something in the pork protein that helps repair arterial damage. What he cites is that in America we die of heart disease and the Japanese tend to die of strokes, but in Okinawa they have fewer strokes. This is part of the reason they live longer. The doctor theorizes that it’s because they eat more pork than any other prefecture of Japan, and pork protein serves almost as caulking.
Sardinians eat a lot of bread and cheese. I guess that means that not all carbs are evil?
You should eat some fat, some protein, and some carbs. None of them are evil; it’s when the balance gets out of whack that you get into trouble. These diets [like Atkins, or the low-fat craze] are the worst. They do a huge disservice. No diet in the history of the world has ever worked. You can’t point to one that’s worked for more than six months. That’s why you go to the bookstore and see 1,287 diet titles.
Well, one diet works: Limit your calories and lead an active life.
People don’t stick to that. What you find is that these Blue Zone cultures don’t deprive themselves, but they’ve learned to cook with recipes that are mostly plant based. You sit down to an Okinawan meal, and it’s this huge pile of food. But because it’s mostly greens and tofu and packed with nutrients, you’ll be full. It’s tasty; there’s no feeling of deprivation. The reason they stick with this sort of diet is because it tastes good.
You said it’s more about what we don’t eat than what we do eat. Anything we consider healthy that actually isn’t?
Just about anything you pull a wrapper off of. Do most of your shopping in the outer aisles of the grocery store.
You found that the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda go for hikes on the Sabbath. Does time off promote long life?
The way I put it is ritualize. Ellen White is the primary architect of the Adventist religion, and she was way ahead of her time with her ideas. She ritualized at least one period of the week where you de-stress and do community building. You have lunch on Saturday with your family and friends. And she ritualized physical activity. She actually called for nature walks. Look at what they do on Saturday—they stop everything; they focus on their god; they cut the stress out of what they need to do; they all go to luncheons with really good friends, and then they’re off on the nature walk. And the payoff is six extra years of life for an Adventist female and nearly ten extra years for an Adventist male.
What other activities tack on years?
One of the greatest activities is growing a garden. You can say “That’s boring!” but you put it in your yard, and it requires physical activity to till the land, weed, water, harvest, fertilize. It’s there as a constant reminder to do a little bit of regular activity. It’s a range-of-motion activity, and it’s low intensity. And you emerge with organic vegetables. It’s something you have to do throughout the week for the entire growing season, and that’s important: subtle things that play out over time and not just fanatic exercise.
So how can you be really active and not damage yourself?
Do regular, low-intensity physical exercise. You get 90 or 95 percent of the benefit of running from walking briskly. We put an excessive emphasis on maximum cardiovascular exertion.
So running eight miles a day . . .
Is a mistake. It’s short-term benefit for long-term trouble. If you start running eight miles a day when you’re 20, by the time you’re 45 your knees and hips will probably wear out. The damage to your cartilage can’t be undone. Really hard exercise also contributes to chronic inflammation. And almost every age-related disease is associated with inflammation. Is it a bad idea to get a good workout? No. But I’d rather see people walking every day than running.
That doesn’t sound like much fun.
Keep in mind that this isn’t just Dan Buettner pontificating. This is Dan Buettner having spent seven years with four—and soon five—populations of people who live the longest, and you don’t see marathoners and triathletes among them. You see shepherds and gardeners and people who take simple walks. The life expectancy through most of recorded history was 28, and our bodies aren’t designed for eight decades of pounding. If you want a body that’s usable after 70 or 80, you need to think about that now. Maybe don’t do marathons or triathlons. I was a fanatic athlete. I’ve backed way down. My addiction was biking. Now I do yoga. I walk.
Are you saying that all the endorphin-chasing, adventure-loving people reading this magazine should find something else to do with their free time?
Not at all. Here’s one thing I can tell you for sure—we know this from a big, global values survey: Taking the time to know what your values are and acting out those values are important ingredients in the formula for happiness. And we know that happier people live longer than unhappy people. That’s measurable. If your values include travel and a certain testing of your abilities and limits, you should invest time and money to do that. If that means climbing mountains or biking across continents or kayaking down rivers, by all means, do it. It’s probably worth the wear and tear on your body. But it’s not a universal to tell people that adventure is the key to happiness. Because other people find happiness curling up by a fire and reading a novel.
What led you to the newest Blue Zone?
On the Greek island of Ikaría, more people reach a healthy age 90 than anywhere else on the planet. We’re investigating the benefits of a local larval honey and the island’s radon-rich hot springs.
Do you think you’ll keep seeking out these pockets of hearty humans for the rest of your (hopefully) long life?
I thought I was going to be done with this in 2005, and here it’s four years later and I see no reason to stop. Now I’m going to fold happiness into it. The effect of unhappiness on your body is about as bad for you as a smoking habit. An unhappy person is about three times more likely to die in a given year than a happy person, for a variety of reasons: suicide, chronic stress, illness. If we can extract happiness secrets from the happiest populations, like we did with Blue Zones, we will help people raise their life expectancy.
The Power Nine: Secrets of long life from the world's healthiest humans
1. Move: Find ways to stay active
2. Plan de Vida: Discover your purpose in life
3. Downshift: Take a break
4. 80% Rule: Don't overeat
5. Plant Power: Choose greens
6. Red Wine: A glass a day
7. Belong: Stay social
8. Beliefs: Get ritualistic
9. Your Tribe: Family matters