How to live to be 100

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A look at exercise in the “Blue Zones”

What determines your lifespan?

According to some of the better research on huge populations of related individuals, including twin studies, our genes only account for 15 – 25% of our longevity. The rest is due to lifestyle. That’s not to say that some lifestyles aren’t inherited – your parents have a pretty huge influence on your lifestyle choices, but theoretically we can control about 80% of the factors that determine how long we live.

And in certain communities around the world, people have figured out the perfect formula to live really long, healthy lives. Over the last several years, a team of researchers traveled the world to try to understand how those people do it. They found five of these communities, termed “Blue Zones” because of the vivid color that stood out in their lifespan mapping data. That TED talk in the link is worth a watch; it’s way shorter than reading the book.

The researchers found that although they’re completely different culturally and geographically, each of those communities has several common factors associated with their lifespans. In addition to living stress-free and eating a common-sense, plant-based diet, the people in the “Blue Zones” exercise a lot. Not surprising.

But what is surprising is those blue zoners aren’t necessarily the most fit. They aren’t running marathons or doing 200 burpees every day. They walk and ride their bikes everywhere (especially the grocery store!); they garden; they build stuff and shovel snow, and they definitely walk their dogs. They move at a steady pace all day long. All that low-intensity, long duration physical activity helps them live longer, healthier lives.

However, there’s no guarantees that low intensity exercise will make you live longer. It’s important to remember that all this research describes associations, not direct, causal relationships. In other words, low intensity exercise is associated with longer lives, in combination with all that other dietary, social, and mental stuff. They may just be willing and able to move more because they’re healthier from the other things.

But the “Blue Zone” findings agree with the vast majority of exercise literature that’s found a plateau in health-related benefits of exercise after a certain amount. There isn’t a perfect dose-response relationship for most of those health adaptations. Like most things, more is not always better.

There’s mountains of data to support the benefits of walking and other leisurely-paced activities (but weight loss isn’t one of them). Just don’t sit down for too long; chairs kill.

Why, then, is high intensity exercise so popular? It works if you want to get fit. Blue zoners live a really long time, but they aren’t internationally recognized as having awesome hard bods. It just depends on your goals.

So be an athlete, love what you do, and get fit. But to get into the centenarian club, slow and steady wins the race.

My favorite exercise quote of all time, and one that I always recite in some form, describes perfectly the importance of physical activity. It comes from one of the founding fathers of physiology, Sir Joseph Barcroft:

“The condition of exercise is not a mere variant of the condition of rest, it is the essence of the machine.”

We’re made to move. The more you do it, the healthier you’ll be.

Photo credit: patrick pilz/unsplash