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Inspired by 'blue zones': 7 daily habits to live a longer, healthier life

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

New Year's Day is typically the day to resolve to do some things differently. There's a lot of research on what changes can lead to healthier living. Joining us now is NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, so you've been covering health and wellness for a long time. So what are the things that can really make a difference?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: You know, we are always hoping there's something magical on the horizon, some superfood, some kind of new exercise trend that is going to catapult us to great health, right? But the reality is much less sensational. I'd say increasingly, a lot of the science points to six or seven key habits. And these are things people have heard about before, A. It's what we eat, how we move, how much we sleep, having strong social connections and purpose. When you put all these together, they are a powerful combination. Whether you're thinking about preventing heart disease, dementia, diabetes and, to some extent even depression, these habits really can make a difference.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. I've always said that, you know, we know what to do. The thing is starting and sticking to it.

AUBREY: Absolutely. I mean, I'd say modern society kind of steers us in the wrong direction. Our food supply is full of junk. Our communities typically are not built to encourage walking. The pace of our lives can feel stressful and leave us kind of feeling alone. So I want to talk about some of the longest-lived communities around the globe. This is something that I know you and I have been thinking about and reporting on this year.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. One of my favorite documentaries in books this year was "Living To 100: Secrets Of The Blue Zones." We both spoke to the author. So let's listen to a bit of your reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AUBREY: One of the most counterintuitive things about the men and women who thrive into their 90s and beyond is that they're not really trying to be healthy. Here's National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner, who identified five places around the globe with the highest concentration of centenarians. He calls them blue zones.

DAN BUETTNER: People in blue zones, they're not thinking about their diet or an exercise program. They're not doing anything except living their lives.

AUBREY: Lots of blue zoners live on islands. There's Sardinia off the coast of Italy, Ikaria, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, and Okinawa, a chain of islands a thousand miles from Tokyo. One of the things they all have in common is the way they eat - simple foods they tend to cook at home.

BUETTNER: The five pillars of any longevity diet in the world are whole grains, greens or garden vegetables, tubers like sweet potatoes, nuts as a snack, and then beans. About a cup of beans a day is associated with an extra four years of life expectancy.

AUBREY: They're not vegetarians, but they eat about one-tenth the amount of meat found in the typical American diet. There's a little cheese, a little fish, and they cook with lots of aromatic herbs and plants, often from their own gardens.

BUETTNER: It's the peasant food. But the important thing is they know how to make that peasant food taste delicious. And that's the secret.

AUBREY: When it comes to exercise, they don't go to the gym. They build movement into their daily lives, take their gardens. Food isn't just a source of nourishment. The act of gardening keeps them bending and squatting and using their muscles.

BUETTNER: You have a garden, it nudges you to weed and water and harvest almost every day.

AUBREY: So they're weaving activity and movement into just everyday life.

MARTÍNEZ: Funny thing, Alison, I have one of those Japanese sweet potatoes waiting for me as soon as we wrap up this interview, so I can't wait to get to it.

AUBREY: Aah, nice.

MARTÍNEZ: It's true. I absolutely do. I can smell it from the other room. Now, I plan to be around half a century from now at 100. The thing is, though, not everyone though, lives in these great, big, beautiful blue zones.

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, we can't. But there are things we can borrow. One thing I've been trying to do inspired by the blue zones is I've been spending more time on my yoga mat. When I have, you know, five or 10 minutes on days when I'm working from home, I try to get on the floor and bend and stretch. And this is something that Buettner saw happening naturally in Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUETTNER: In Okinawa, people sit on the floor. They sit on tatami mats on very low tables. I sat for two days with 104-year-old woman who got up and down off the floor 30 times. Those are squats. That makes stronger lower bodies. It makes for better balance. It makes for more open hips and flexibility, probably healthier backs and much fewer falls.

AUBREY: And this is really key because as we age, A, falls are responsible for a lot of injury. In fact, they're the leading cause among older people. So no matter how old you are, why not begin to build a habit of building strength training into your everyday life?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So we've talked about a healthy diet, exercise and strength training. What else can we borrow from those blue zones?

AUBREY: I think another throughline is that the people in the blue zones tend to form tight social bonds. In Okinawa, for instance, there are small groups called moais, where people tend to really rely on each other. They show up for each other to some extent. If you're living in a remote area disconnected from modern life and conveniences, people need to be more reliant on neighbors and close friends. But I think it's telling, A, at a time when we hear so much about loneliness and disconnection that people who live in more traditional communities and live more simply have engineered connection into daily life.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what are those workarounds then? I mean, how do we form these bonds in our communities?

AUBREY: Something I was really struck by this year is that in addition to reporting on these blue zones, I also covered a study. It was published in Nature Mental Health. It was this very comprehensive look at depression. Researchers tracked hundreds of thousands of people for years to find out how these very habits we've been talking about diet, exercise, sleep, social connections were tied to episodes of depression, and they found that people who maintained most of the healthy habits had about a 50% lower risk of depression. Now, of course, a lot of people need medication to help with depression, but I think it is striking because it's a reminder of the importance of daily routines and everyday choices and habits.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So that means that these habits then can influence not just physical health, but mental health.

AUBREY: Yeah. And I think there's a challenge here. I mean, think about it. Society is always pushing us or nudging us kind of in the wrong direction. We scroll on social media instead of engaging with others. But these studies are a reminder that we sometimes have to push back against societal norms in order to be healthy and happy.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Allison, hopefully we have this conversation in 2073 as well. NPR's health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks.

AUBREY: I look forward to it. Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.