We can learn a lot from the habits of people living in the “Blue Zones”—the communities scattered around the world where residents enjoy an unusually long and healthy life span. Author Dan Buettner coined the term and identified five regions that are in many ways diverse but all have women and men in their 90s and 100s living active lives: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and the Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.
What do these longevity hotspots have in common? Among other things, the cultures are removed from the fast pace of modern life. The people get plenty of gentle exercise incorporated into their daily routine, they eat moderately, they have strong social connections, and they live with meaning and purpose.
Modern “Blue Zoners” try to live better by replicating and expanding on these good habits, with programs promising less stress, more energy and better sleep. The sleep element is vitally important: Studies show longevity is closely linked with getting enough healthy rest. If you’re interested in trying to sleep better as part of your own longevity goals, consider the wisdom of the original Blue Zones and their copycat modern counterparts:
1. Find a way to let go of stress.
The stereotypical Blue Zoner is a centenarian who minds an organic vegetable garden and takes long walks through the sunlit village dispensing wisdom. Your life might look a little different—with a job and family—but it’s still essential to find a way to let go of your stress as the day winds down. You could relax with a bath and a glass of red wine, read a calming book, or try meditation. Whatever works for you, settling down your stress hormones before bed will help you fall asleep more easily and prevent middle-of-the-night awakenings.
2. Get some sunlight.
Another advantage to that stroll through the sunlit village is the sun itself. People in the Blue Zones rise with the sun and go to sleep when it’s dark. That’s because getting bright light during the day strengths the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which is a vital part of restful sleep. You may not have the luxury of awakening with the sun, but try to expose yourself to some bright light within an hour of awakening. If you have to get up too early, consider buying a therapeutic light box.
3. Hug a loved one.
Blue Zone inhabitants are well-known for their reverence for family and connection to community. This doesn’t just make life more pleasant; it actually has positive effects in the body. Oxytocin, for example, is a hormone released when we cuddle with a loved one that also reduces stress and promotes sleep.
4. Exercise wisely.
Centenarians in the Blue Zones don’t go to the gym to jog on the treadmill. Instead, they incorporate lots of natural movements into their daily lives. Walking is great for you and will help lower stress and maintain body weight. But vigorous exercise has its place, too—as long as it’s not too close to bedtime. Sleep experts recommend a half-hour of exercise four or five times a week. More than that causes stress which can be hard to recover from.
5. Create the right environment.
Make sure your bedroom is dark, cool, quiet and comfortable. Keep electronic devices out of the room, especially if they have glowing lights. And consider putting something lavender-scented at your bedside; several studies have shown that it improves sleep and reduces awakenings.
6. Let go of having to be “on” all the time.
Modern life can put a lot of demands on us, and our culture has responded by turning being busy into a status symbol. Overcommitting to unimportant tasks adds stress that hurts our sleep and shortens our lives. That’s not to say we’d be better off on a 24/7 vacation, though. One of the lessons from the Blue Zones is that people live longer when they have a clear purpose—that they literally know what they’re getting out of bed for. Take a step back to examine your own life: Do you have a purpose, and are the things you’re spending time on moving you toward that purpose? If not, eliminate some of what you don’t need. Then build some rest into your schedule; it will make you stronger for the important tasks that remain, and you’re guaranteed to sleep better.