In the Blue Zone

Dan Buettner has traveled all over the world looking for the secrets of living a long and happy life. His journeys have led him to Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, Calif.; and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica — places called Blue Zones where many people are making it to 100 with low rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Buettner’s team have come up with nine tips for people who want to adopt the Blue Zone approach: move naturally, cut calories by 20 percent, eat a plant-based diet, drink red wine in moderation, determine your life purpose, take time to relieve stress, be involved in a faith community, put loved ones first and pick the right tribe — people who are supportive and positive.

The research — outlined in his New York Times bestselling book "The Blue Zone" — has earned praise from noted medical experts and drawn the interest of media all over the world. Since its publication last year, Buettner and his team have been uncovering more longevity secrets.

Soon, Buettner is headed to another Blue Zone — an island in the northern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey. The precise location won’t be announced until right before the Quest scheduled for April 20–May 1. A team of 12 will be joining him on the trip, including demographers, scientists, physicians, local historians and media experts. Each night, the team will post videos and written materials for the Blue Zones website.

Like his others Quests, students from around the world will help direct the efforts of the research team by voting on their activities. Students at Barton Open School, a K-8 magnet school in the East Harriet Neighborhood, will be among those tuned into the Quest.

Lisa Lange, a support teacher at Barton, has worked with students to track previous Quests and used it to inspire other classroom projects. In one activity, children wrote to their grandparents about how important they were to them. "We can make a difference in other peoples’ lives and I feel the kids are really empowered by that," she said.

(A couple of student essays on the Blue Zones can be found at the end of this piece.)

Buettner, a Southwest resident who has an office in the North Loop neighborhood, recently sat down with the Southwest Journal to talk about his insights from his many travels.

What will the next Quest be like?

We’re here on this island in the middle of the Aegean Sea and this is where people live the longest. It’s a de facto fountain of youth, but we don’t know how they do it. For the next two weeks we have experts from Italy and Belgium and Harvard and National Geographic and photographers. And you get to vote to decide where the team goes to solve the mystery. Around this core activity of daily voting, we have a curriculum guide that shows teachers how to use this experience to teach social studies, science, language arts, geography and a little bit of ancient civilization.

We’re actively identifying characteristics that correlate or cause longevity — there’s about 25 of them. The island is off the charts high in radon. They have about an eight-fold better chance of reaching 90 than we do. That’s significant.

If you want to do longevity responsibly — anybody who tells you they are going to help you live to a 100 is feeding you a line because our bodies are not built for that. The reality is the average person, their body is designed to make it to 90. We’re only living to 78 so somewhere we’re losing a dozen years. And the whole purpose of Blue Zone is to get those dozen years we’re missing — and to make those dozen high quality years. Our recipe for doing that is to find cultures that have achieved it and carefully study what they do. The reality it’s not one magic elixir, or one herb, or one food, or a diet. It’s the sum of several small things. The good news is those small things are easy to adopt and they’re cheap — they’re recession proof. And they tend to add to quality of life, which is even more important than quantity of life.

What are some of the new lessons you’re discovering?

In Costa Rica, in the Nicoya peninsula, we found through looking at geological atlases that the bedrock underneath the Nicoya peninsula is different than the rest of Costa Rica. Most of Costa Rica is volcanic and here you have a limestone base. So the water that burbles out of the ground and comes out of the faucets, we’ve tested 20 spots and it has off the charts levels of calcium and magnesium. So people their whole life everyday — with the water they drink and cook — they get the equivalent of 1,000 milligrams of calcium. You combine that with the sunshine — Nicoya gets more and better sunshine than any other part of Costa Rica — the result is stronger bones. One of the bigger killers of people over 50 is falling down and breaking a bone, breaking a hip. These people have stronger bones, better balance and better muscle functioning. When they fall down, they’re less likely to break something because of this calcium and Vitamin D combination.

What about people here in Minneapolis? How can they live longer?

All of those nine are portable. I think the best thing you can do is think about who you hang out with. If your three best friends are obese, there’s a 50 percent chance you’ll be overweight. If you hang out with people who drink too much, smoke or eat poorly, or don’t move, there’s an immutable long-term impact. So making the point to try to surround yourself with people whose idea of recreation is physical activity, who drink a little but not too much, who are trusting and trustworthy.

There’s an odd pull to the suburbs at certain times in people’s lives, but actually living where we live in Southwest, is in many ways an ideal community for longevity because it’s walkable. People who live in the suburbs have an obesity rate that is 9 percent or 10 percent higher than we do. There is so many mindless ways for us to get physical activity. We know that having a strong community — having a great social circle — [is important]. It’s a lot easier to do that when you live in a strong neighborhood than it is when you’re on a cul de sac and you don’t know your neighbors.

There are a lot of churches. It seems like a platitude, but it’s not — you’re adding seven to 14 years of life expectancy if you go to church, temple or mosque — if you belong to a faith community. You’re less likely to engage in risky behaviors, you have a built in social circle. I don’t think you feel alone so much in the world. You have ritualized stress reduction.

We all are busy and we’re all worried about the recession. But here these people who make the effort to include faith in their life at least one day of the week, they take their focus off the stock market and off themselves. I think that’s so powerful. …

… The other thing you have in Southwest are [great parks]. Theodore Wirth was a brilliant dude. Those parkways along the lakes didn’t just happen — he had to fight for them. Like everyplace else, developers wanted to put houses right up on the lake, and basically the rich people got access to the water and the poor people … our forefathers were prescient in creating an environment of recreation. We have great access to parks, we have a very high rate of bicycle commuting, it’s easy to find places to walk. We have nice parks. We have hockey rinks on the lake. All of that stuff — when it’s easy and accessible — you do it.

How did you get interested in all this work?

I’ve always been an explorer and started out with these ultra-long bicycle rides — driven largely by curiosity. Then I got into these Quests because this idea of just going someplace — the old model of exploring where you go to a faraway part of the world and endure hardships and people will be interested — is done. … I had this very clear epiphany about 15 years ago that expeditions need to add to the body of knowledge. If you’re going to go out and get sponsors, you need to bring back something that people can use, or that somehow enlightens or informs. You can’t just go. So I did this series of about 17 expeditions that we called Quests that led an online audience direct a team of experts to solve a mystery, and most of them were archaeological mysteries … The more I did these, the more I realized that the best answers are kind of locked in the traditional cultures. … What these traditional cultures do is the result of thousands of years of observed human history — there’s a lot of wisdom locked in marriage rites, world histories and why people cook certain foods certain ways, why they sleep this way — there are always reasons.

How has your life changed through what you’ve learned?

I don’t eat much meat anymore. When it comes to physical activity, my golden rule is do what you love. I used to workout like a maniac. I spend more time going to church even though I’m not naturally drawn to it. I’ve been trying other religions out.

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Essays by Barton fourth grade students in the 214 media class

Hannah Ellen Callahan

I thought Blue Zones was really fun and interesting to study, because we were able to see things that can help people live longer. We kids can do something about it by exercising now and keeping our bodies healthy. Not only that, but we can also help our grandparents to live longer by telling them what they mean to us, so they know they have a purpose in life. While we are learning all about how to keep healthy we are also learning about other places in the world.  I really had fun learning about Blue Zones!

Megan R. Thimmesch

Many kids at school are learning about Blue Zones and how people in special parts of the world live longer and heathier lives. At the beginning of the lesson, the kids watch a video and talk about it. Then they vote on a mystery photo. Go to

Rowan Nicholas Doyle

Blue Zones was really fun and interesting to study and learn about. The two places we have learned about are Japan and Costa Rica. I really liked the mystery photos. One of them was a photo of some really healthy corn tortillas. The tortillas are made the old fashion way and help people live longer. I had a lot of fun playing around with Blue Zones! You can also have fun learning about their next trip to Greece in April.