The secret to better health may start with keeping a bowl of fruit on your kitchen counter.
That brimming fruit bowl is one, tiny part of a healthier way to live, one that encourages making simple changes that lead to big results. Changes that can add up to a longer and healthier life.
Living healthier isn’t about starting a new diet on Jan. 1 or signing up for a gym. It’s embracing a way of living that naturally leads to better health.
Restrictive weight loss diets don’t work for many people. Exercise programs don’t work for many people. That’s because they’re hard. The extra time and effort required to follow many popular diets and do the things most of us consider “working out” makes it less likely that we will keep up with those habits over the long term.
Making things too difficult is the reason that many people fail when they try to change their behavior.
It isn’t surprising that health issues such as diabetes and heart disease harm an increasing number of people in the U.S.
But good health seems to come easy in some parts of the world where people lead long and healthy lives. They don’t eat expensive specialty “diet” foods, follow restrictive diets or spend their days at a gym or spin class.
Scientists began studying these communities to find out their secret. The Blue Zones Project® started in 2004 when a team of scientists studied an area of Sardinia, Italy, the first of five places they studied where people live long, healthy lives. They weren’t worn down by diabetes, heart disease and other common health issues.
And they weren’t trying to live a long time. They weren’t trying to pursue good health. They were just living their lives. That’s the key, said Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner.
Certain healthy habits and activities are a normal part of their everyday lives and have been for generations. They eat fewer calories and have healthy foods readily available. Having good meals with family and friends is a daily occurrence. Walking or biking is a big part of how they get around. They spend time outdoors. They make meaningful social connections and are part of a community. They have a generally positive outlook and a sense of purpose.
They don’t work at doing these things every day. It’s just how they live their lives. So how can people who don’t live in those parts of the world naturally live a similar healthy lifestyle?
Start by changing your surroundings to make better choices easier, Buettner says. People spend most of their time in the same places. That impacts how easy or hard it is to make healthy choices.
Small Changes that Make a Big Difference
The changes to make are simple:
- Eat less.
- Cook affordable, fresh, natural foods, including a lot of fruits and vegetables.
- Put family and friends first.
- Walk and move more.
- Attend religious services or build other connections in your community.
Setting Up Success in Communities
With the Blue Zones Project, governments, employers and others join together to apply these lessons to a whole community. Obesity and smoking rates have fallen in Blue Zones Project communities, with activity levels climbing.
About 40 U.S. cities have already embraced the plan. Communities have worked with restaurants to offer menu items that make it easier for customers to choose a healthier, plant-based diet. They’ve made it simpler for people to walk or bike to work or school. Schools and employers have gotten on board.
“You set it up once. Make it easy for people to do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing for decades to come,” Buettner said.
Scaling It Down to Families and Individuals
Individuals and families can set up their lives to make healthy choices easy, too. Where can you start? At home, at work — wherever you spend most of your time. Buettner offers some suggestions to help with naturally making better food choices and getting more activity every day.
Small Steps to Change What You Eat
Changing small habits and setting up your surroundings for success can help you more easily make better food choices every day. Here are some things to try in your home:
- Keep fresh fruit and vegetables front and center because it’s hard to eat too much fresh produce.
- Bread is not bad for most people, as long as it’s whole grain. Try making your own bread. Kneading gives you a mini upper-body workout.
- Eat more beans and fish and less red meat.
- Cook at home as a family or with friends. You’ll be more likely to have small, healthy portions with less salt and fat.
- Save sweets and salty snacks for special occasions. Go out for treats, rather than stocking your refrigerator and pantry with them.
- Don’t eat late at night.
- Drink more water.
- Remove the toaster from the counter. Then you’ll be less likely to buy and eat low-nutrition toast or snack pastries.
- The out of sight, out of mind principal applies to other food choices as well. Don’t leave a bag of salty snack chips on the counter because they will be hard to resist.
What does it mean to mindlessly move? Make activity a natural part of your day. Many of us think joining a gym will help us be active. It may start out that way, but people often get busy and stop going.
You may have more success by adding different activities throughout your day. Do things that don’t require special clothes or equipment or a trip to the gym. Blue Zones folks walk. They do chores. They move all day long. Activity is part of their everyday lives. And it doesn’t seem like work to do it.
Try these simple ideas to move more:
- Wear comfortable shoes. No one wants to walk if their feet hurt.
- Learn how to get to work by taking the bus or train. That’s an easy way to add walking to your day. When you drive, park farther away from your destination.
- Take the garage door opener out of your car. Getting out of the car to open the door adds activity.
- Garden or do your own yard work — without power tools. Rake your leaves. Try using a push mower.
- Bike, walk or plan other regular outdoor activities. Ask friends and family to join you. Make it a fun time to get together.
- Get a dog. Dogs don’t let you forget your daily walk.
Sources: The Secrets of Living Longer, Better Are All Around Us, The Blue Zones Project; Recipes, Blue Zones; Walking, Your Steps to Health, Harvard Men’s Health Watch, 2018; Going Mediterranean to Prevent Heart Disease, Harvard Health Blog, 2019; Best Diets Overall, U.S. News & World Report, 2019; Recipes for Healthy Living, American Diabetes Association; Managing Blood Pressure with a Heart Healthy Diet, American Heart Association, 2016; Planning Meals, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018