Tips for sustaining a healthy lifestyle - learnings from the Blue zones

6 min read

In light of recent events, it seems harder than ever to live a healthy lifestyle. With the majority of the population working from home whilst having to juggle childcare and general housekeeping, self-isolation and social distancing have made a huge impact on our daily lives, making it near impossible to keep up a healthy routine.

In the following post I am going to offer some ideas, advice and tricks that you can implement into your new routine to help keep it as healthy as possible! We will also take a look at the world’s blue zones (areas of the planet that have the largest populations of people that live to over 100 years old), as their habits and social structure could benefit us during these difficult times and indeed, when our lives return to normal.

So, where are the blue zones and what can we take from them to benefit us?

The 5 blue zones are: Sardinia, Italy; Icaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda, California and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.

As you can see, these regions are spread across the globe, and are not in any way directly linked to one another. However, there are commonalities between each population’s habits and positive lifestyle indicators. In his book about these regions, Author Dan Buettner identifies several key lessons that we can implement into our lives similar to those observed amongst the populations of these areas. Below I’ve outlined my tips for a healthy lifestyle that can also be seen in the blue zones:

1.      Moderate, regular physical activity

Something that we know and has been widely shown to be beneficial for all is moving our bodies. With gyms currently closed and with limited time to spend outside, this can be quite a challenge, BUT this could also be a golden opportunity to start training from the safety of our homes.

Whatever your fitness level, simply getting out for a walk daily (practicing social distancing of course) and trying to maintain some daily focussed exercise (30-60minutes) including a combination of resistance and cardiovascular training will be hugely beneficial. If you’re lacking motivation, try facetiming a friend or joining in with an online class - anything that gets you up and moving is going to help.

For those of you who were previously regular gym goers, you can take solace in the fact that maintaining your current muscle mass is relatively easy, compared to building it in the first place. From this point of view, make sure that you are still training, and progressively overloading the muscles as you train (this probably means you’re in for lots of reps unless you have some kit available to use) and focus on keeping your protein intake up (1.6-2g/kg should be sufficient) to help reduce muscle wastage during this time.

2.      A Plant-based diet

This is not the same thing as a plant-only (vegan/vegetarian) diet. All of the cultures observed in the blue zones ate a varied, omnivorous diet, however there was a running theme that the bulk of the diet was composed of a good range of plants.

We know that eating plenty of fruit and veg is an important part of a balanced diet, and we can use this time of change to try and incorporate more into our daily diets. Aim for 5-10 portions a day, or if you’re struggling, just start with eating one more piece of fruit or veg a day and build it up from there.

3.      Moderate Caloric intake

Now that we are all spending more time at home, this could be an excellent opportunity to start cooking home made meals and testing out new, healthier recipes (and maybe even getting the kids involved in learning to cook).

If you feel like you are short on time, there is a wider variety than ever of healthy, pre-made meals that can be delivered to you to save time. An effective way to help manage calorie intake is to pre-plan your weekly meals and snacks, then only purchase the required quantities to prepare these meals. This has several benefits:

1.      It reduces the trips to the shop (a good thing right now)

2.      It takes an element of thought out of your daily life if you know what you need to cook each day, which in turn helps to manage stress

3.      It reduces the amount of food that you have lying around the house, so you are less likely to overeat if you haven’t got a cupboard full of snacks.

Also on the subject of calorie intake, it’s worth noting that you are likely to be less active now than when you were free to roam, which probably means you don’t need to eat as much to maintain your current weight. If you need help with understanding how to calculate your required intake, please jut ask!

4.      Moderate alcohol intake, especially wine

Great news! That evening glass of wine may not be such a bad thing after all. But the key word here is moderate. Make it a small glass and stick to, or below the recommended daily intake. Linking back to the above point regarding calorie intake, many alcoholic beverages are also fairly calorific, so bear this in mind if you are looking to maintain or lose weight.

This is also by no means stating that you have to drink moderately or at all to have great health. But if you are going to drink, keep it on the low end of the scale for the best health outcomes long-term.

5. Engagement in Family and social life

Having good family and social connections was seen as a key theme throughout the blue zones, with many people living in close knit communities and having the benefit of everyone supporting one another. This is especially important now, as the lockdown has forced us to be physically apart from friends and family.

However, due to technology, social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. It’s so easy keep in touch with family and friends via phone, video message, text etc. Although it’s not the same as being face to face, maintaining contact and a sense of community is more important now than ever.

As humans we are social creatures by nature and it isn’t good for us to be alone all the time. Having a support network around you will get you through the tough times and make you realize how important friends and family are.

6. Stress Reduction

At this difficult time, the majority of the population are at a heightened level of stress over health concerns, financial security, business and schooling amongst other things, so trying to find methods to manage stress or have more downtime is essential in reducing the chances of stressors taking their toll on your mental health.

Getting out into nature and spending at least an hour away from a screen each day will also help to relax, ground you and give your brain a break, as will getting a sufficient amount of sleep and staying in regular contact with friends and family.

Snacking and repeated trips to the fridge and cupboards are 1000 times more tempting now we’re spending a lot more time at home! As a result, our new environment can make a big impact on our diet and overall health.

We will probably find ourselves snacking or eating the foods that we see most frequently or are the easiest to get to, so taking some time to consider this can have a massive impact on your overall diet. Especially when combined with the ideas from earlier in the article where we discussed pre-planning your shops and meals for the week.

Think about where the foods that you most commonly snack on are placed in your home. Are they in plain sight, making them more tempting to you? If so, are you able to place them out of sight at the back of a cupboard or high up so they are more awkward to get at? Replace crisps, chocolate and high sugar snacks with fruit and healthier options, placing them in direct sight and making them easily accessible.

We can hopefully utilise some of these points to create a more structured daily routine that is focussed on more positive, beneficial habits than before the lockdown. This will have the added bonus of increasing the chances of us continuing these positive habits once this lockdown phase is over and we can look re-establish our usual lifestyles, but hopefully with more positive habits installed to enable us to maintain our health long term.

James Lee

James Lee

An MNU Certified Nutritionist, qualified Pharmacist and PT working with a diverse range of clients from athletes to general population. James is passionate about improving the health of the nation.