Longevity may partially be in your genes, but your lifestyle and environment are important too. Plus, these are factors you have control over. According to the growing field of epigenetics, even if you have genes that increase your risk for health problems, you may not express those genes if you make the right lifestyle choices. Certain areas of the world are known for their longevity. Not only do the citizens of these regions live long, full lives, they seem relatively immune to many of the diseases that shorten the lives of people living in Western countries. What can we learn about longevity from other parts of the world?
Eat Like the Okinawans
More Okinawans blow the candles out on their 100th birthday cake than almost any other area of the world. The secret may be the low-glycemic diet they eat. They enjoy lots of omega-3 rich fish and limited amounts of other types of meat. Rather than serving their fish with rice or white potatoes, they eat it with sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are rich in antioxidants like beta-carotene and won’t spike blood sugar levels like white potatoes.
They also enjoy other vegetables in abundance. Plus, they eat more soy than people in other countries. Not surprisingly, heart disease rates are lower here than in other parts of the world, and the Okinawans enjoy good health into an advanced age.
Think it’s good genetics that keeps the Okinawans youthful and active to an advanced age? A study showed that Okinawans who migrated to Brazil had significantly shorter lifespans and a higher rate of heart disease after adopting a diet that included more processed foods.
How You Can Benefit:
Eat Okinawan style. Replace white rice, white potatoes and white bread with colorful fruits and vegetables and fiber-rich whole grains. Eat wild caught salmon, sardines or other low-mercury fatty fish several times a week. Think fresh, whole and unprocessed.
Don’t Skimp on Sleep
What do the long-living citizens of Ikaria Island, Greece credit their longevity to? A daily nap. Citizens on this island routinely take a short nap in the afternoon. With research showing a link between lack of sleep and increased mortality, they may be on to something. A twenty to thirty minute nap in the afternoon is an effective way to “reboot” your brain and relieve stress. Many people don’t take advantage of a “power nap” because they think they don’t have time, but a short nap can make you more alert, focused and productive.
How You Can Benefit:
If you can’t snooze on the job, take a few minutes to close your eyes and meditate for a few minutes. Take some deep breaths envision stress melting away. You’ll approach the afternoon with renewed vigor and greater focus if you give your brain a break. Set aside one day a week to relax and unwind. Rather than sitting in front of your computer, take a walk outdoors or go on a nature hike. All work and no relaxation boost levels of stress hormones like cortisol that increase your risk for health problems and weight gain.
Focus on Produce
You may not have heard of Abkhasia, a small community in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, but with the nickname “longevity capital of the world,” there’s something to learn from them. The secret to their longevity lies with the diet they enjoy – a diet rich in fruits and vegetables with fewer animal products than Western diets. Of course, they also avoid processed foods that are the mainstay of diets in modernized countries.
How You Can Benefit
This one is simple. Choose more foods from your local Farmer’s market or grow a backyard garden so you can enjoy the taste of more fresh fruits and vegetables. Think “whole” not “processed” when you’re shopping at the supermarket. If you have to choose a packaged food, choose one with a short list of ingredients that’s high in fiber, low in salt and sugar and contains no trans-fat or high fructose corn syrup.
Leave the Car in the Garage
One secret of almost every culture where the citizens remain healthy to an advanced age is they get around more on foot. Walking is their main mode of transportation. They don’t sit all day in an office. Instead they walk, often over mountainous terrain – and they grow and harvest their own food. The Japanese once had a more active lifestyle with more people getting around by foot rather than by car. As the number of Japanese that drive cars has increased, their weight has also risen. This may very well impact the health and longevity of future generations.
How You Can Benefit
Start by doing a structured workout every day, but also add more “incidental” exercise to your life. Even if you work in an office, there are opportunities to get up and walk around, take a brisk walk and go up and down the stairs. Stairs may not be mountains but every bit of activity counts. If you have the opportunity to do it safely, bike or walk to work instead of driving.
When you need to run an errand, ask whether you really need to drive – or whether you can get there on foot. Too much sitting increases your risk for health problems like type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease even if you work out regularly. Move more throughout the day – every day.
The Bottom Line?
You don’t have to live in a remote part of the world to adopt a longevity lifestyle. More fruits and vegetables, less processed food and animal fat and more activity throughout the day are things you can do to add years to your life. Make the right choices and reap the benefits of living a longer, fuller life.
Men’s Health. September 2011. “Live Almost Forever”
Eco-Friendly African Travel. “The Longevity Diet: Secrets to Living a Healthy and Long-Lasting Life”
Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 2004 Dec;31 Suppl 2:S5-7.