How to Attain Optimal Heart Health: Lifestyle Tips from the Blue Zones

February 13, 2020

Image via Shutterstock

Kimberly Steinkopf, IIN Content Editor

The heart pushes blood to every part of our body, supplying oxygen and nutrients to our tissue and carrying out waste. With the heart playing such a vital role in keeping our bodies functioning, it is a no-brainer that we should do everything we can to keep it healthy.

Unfortunately, heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death worldwide. But a healthy lifestyle, especially started at a young age, can go a long way in preventing poor heart health. In fact, there are areas in the world where people have strong heart health and are living healthy, long lives, thanks to their simple, everyday habits.

The Blue Zones

The Blue Zones are geographic regions where people live longer and healthier lives than any other areas of the world. These regions were identified by journalist Dan Buettner in partnership with National Geographic. They are named the “Blue Zones” because when Buettner and his colleagues were researching these areas, they drew blue circles around the regions on a map. These regions include:

  • Icaria, Greece
  • Ogliastra, Sardinia, Italy
  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  • The Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California

So what type of lifestyle do people in these regions practice and how is it helping them live longer?

There are nine traits that all the Blue Zone regions have in common:

  1. Daily natural movement – including chores, gardening, and walking
  2. Purpose – having a strong sense of worth
  3. Time to rest and unwind – participating in activities that help destress
  4. Eating until 80% full – to help support digestion and maintain a healthy weight
  5. Choosing a plant-based diet – mostly vegetables and legumes
  6. Drinking in moderation – 1–2 alcoholic drinks (typically wine) per day
  7. Spirituality – having a sense of belonging in a faith-based community
  8. Putting family first – keeping family (including aging parents and grandparents) close by
  9. Community – having a close social circle of supportive, like-minded individuals

These practices that help promote strong health and longevity are quite simple, and it is refreshing to know that we can adopt this lifestyle (or parts of it) to improve our own health, especially our heart health.

How daily moderate exercise can help improve heart health

The American Heart Association recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week to help prevent heart disease. Additionally, scientific research has linked too much sitting to poor heart health. With long days at the office and limited time for exercise, many people are not meeting the suggested daily movement recommendations to support optimal heart health.

People living in the Blue Zones typically incorporate physical activity into their daily routines. Most of the time, these activities are built into their house chores and work. People living in the Blue Zones are not sitting for 8+ hours a day and then hoping they can make up for it by going to the gym for an hour. Rather, they are moving often throughout the entirety of the day.

Regular physical activity helps strengthen the heart muscle and improve overall cardiovascular health, including low blood pressure, healthy cholesterol levels, and blood sugar regulation. To incorporate more movement throughout the day and help prevent heart disease, try getting up and walking every hour, riding your bicycle to work, ditching the elevator, or gardening.

How the Blue Zone diet can help fight heart disease

Our diet is an important factor in keeping our heart healthy. Although the Blue Zone regions are in different parts of the world, people in these regions primarily eat a similar, plant-based diet that focuses on lots of fruits and vegetables. Studies on the impact of nutrition on heart health support this way of eating, showing that diets higher in plant-based foods were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

At Integrative Nutrition, we like to use the concept of “crowding out” when it comes to our diet – adding healthy, nutritious foods to the diet first to eventually not have room for unhealthy foods. This ultimately leads to a balanced, sustainable way of eating. Based on the diets of those in the Blue Zones, there are four top foods to add to the diet for strong heart health and longevity:

  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, farro, and oatmeal
  • Nuts, including walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans
  • Beans, such as chickpeas, black beans, and lentils
  • Fruits and vegetables, including blueberries, fennel, bitter melons, and dark, leafy greens

How managing stress can help prevent heart issues

Stress is the body’s emotional or physical response to the demands in our life. Everyone experiences stress in different ways, and factors like lack of sleep, the pressure of paying bills, or being overwhelmed at work can all contribute to it. Unmanaged stress has been linked to various heart conditions, including high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, high cholesterol, and damage to the arteries.

People living in the Blue Zone regions participate in various practices that help reduce stress. Referred to as “downshifting,” those living in these regions meditate, pray, nap, practice yoga, dance, or wind down with wine on a daily basis. In addition to participating in these types of destressing practices, people in the Blue Zones prioritize sleep, which is typically connected to stress and heart health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both sleep apnea and insomnia are major contributors to poor heart health.

You may not be able to put these types of destressing practices into action every day, but the more you begin to incorporate them, the calmer you will begin to feel.

How our social network affects our heart health

Between keeping family members close and socializing with like-minded individuals, people who live in the Blue Zones prioritize community. Many family households in these areas have three or four generations living under one roof and commonly celebrate with the larger community for religious holidays, festivals, and other events. Being with others often provides a sense of support and belonging, which is known to increase happiness, heart health, and overall well-being.

Studies have also confirmed that connectedness is important for helping prevent heart disease. Specifically, one study showed that married couples are at less risk of cardiovascular complications. Another study showed the detrimental effect that toxic relationships can have on heart health. To support optimal heart health, the vital takeaway from the Blue Zone regions is to focus on building supportive relationships in your life.

How Health Coaches can use inspiration from the Blue Zones to support clients

Health Coaches can use inspiration from the Blue Zones to help clients improve their heart health and overall well-being by supporting their sleep habits, encouraging meditation, or suggesting community-related activities. Health Coaches can partner with their clients on these lifestyle habits that will help result in optimal heart health.

Interested in becoming a Health Coach? Learn more!

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