Want to live to be 100? Take a page from these 'Blue Zone' residents' playbook

NBC News health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom looks at "blue zones,” where people live well into their 90s without much chronic illness of any kind.
Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, left, and NBC News health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, right.
Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, left, and NBC News health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, right.Travis W Keyes Photography

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By Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD

We seem to be in a constant cycle of buying into health fads promising a long and disease-free life. Hoping for the next “new thing,” even savvy consumers jump from plan to plan hoping to stay healthy and reach 100 (or close to it).

There is no magic pill. But we can look at well-studied “blue zones,” where people live well into their 90s and even 100 without much chronic illness of any kind, and take a page out of their playbook.

While there is a genetic component to longevity, there’s been a great deal of study on these groups of “super-successful agers.” And while the precise number of centenarians in each region is somewhat controversial (record keeping is not always precise in more remote areas), absolute age is not the most important factor. Rather, they share similar lifestyle habits although they are spread throughout the world.

The idea of a “blue zone” was originally started by academic researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain who studied a province on the island of Sardinia, which has a very high concentration of centenarians. Dan Buettner, an explorer and author, coined the term and looked at other areas throughout the world with similar traits to those observed in Sardinia.

His further study revealed five areas of the world with the highest percentage of centenarians:

-Sardinia (the original)

-Okinawa, Japan

-Loma Linda, California

-Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

-Icaria, Greece

So what traits do people living in these countries have in common and how can you apply them to your everyday life?

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1. Keep moving every day

My top tip: Think about activities of daily living – walking, gardening, playing with your children outside. It’s not “better” to lift weights or run if you don’t enjoy it. Just focus on being active on a daily basis.

2. Live a life with purpose

My top tip: Think about what gives your life meaning and what gives purpose to your day. It could be your family, friends, career or volunteering – it’s a personal and individual decision.

3. Manage your stress

My top tip: It’s important to change your response to stress. Even “blue zone” residents have life stressors and develop personal tools to manage it. Think about stress you can or cannot control in your own life and make some changes over what you can control.

4. Don’t eat until you’re stuffed

My top tip: Eat until you are content and satisfied – you could eat more but choose not to. Remember, there’s always more food later! This is a learned behavior and helps with portion control and overall weight management. It’s a way to moderate your food intake without a lot of rules.

5. Eat more plants

My top tip: Focus on protein-rich beans like black, soy, and lentils. For beginners, start with prepared burgers. Make colorful fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen) a larger part of your daily intake. Limit meat intake, and reduce serving size and frequency of consumption. If you enjoy meat, there’s no need to eliminate it altogether.

6. If you consume alcohol, think of wine – in moderation

My top tip: Don’t add alcohol if you don’t already enjoy it. Wine guidelines in these blue zones are similar to those recommended in the U.S. – up to one daily serving for women, and two for men (a serving is 4 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces spirits).

7. Find your sense of belonging

My top tip: Whether it’s an organized religion, informal faith-based thinking, or a non-religious favorite community group, find your spiritual self and nurture it.

8. Commit to family

My top tip: Make your family members a top priority in your life. Seek out close relationships, which can also include “framily” (friends chosen as family). And make the effort to keep in touch with extended family members.

9. Develop a social network with like-minded people

Top tip: We all need support, so establish a group of people with whom you have a lot in common, who also support healthy behaviors.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is NBC News' health editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.