A glass of red wine, a siesta, a bike ride … discover easy ways to help you live a longer, healthier life.
Want to look younger or feel more energetic? The answer can be found in the diverse health habits of people around the world. By making everyday lifestyle choices that emphasize nutrient-rich food, physical activity, and even a daily nap, we can adopt strategies for a long, healthy life.
A healthy trip around the world
From Greece to India, Spain to Japan, people have long been incorporating healthy choices into their daily routines. By following their lead, we may be able to prevent or slow down lifestyle diseases. So, buckle up as we take a trip around the world!
Make healthy fats and fish a dietary staple
Think of the Mediterranean, and olive trees may come to mind. In fact, olive oil and fish are part of the Mediterranean diet’s healthy fat profile. Compared to the typical Canadian diet, the Mediterranean diet is higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, lower in saturated fat, and richer in omega-3 fatty acids. Scientists believe these healthy fats help reduce inflammation and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and also decrease other age-associated diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease.
In an American study of over 4,600 participants, the more closely subjects’ eating patterns matched the Mediterranean diet, the longer their telomeres measured, a biomarker for positive aging. These findings support the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for promoting health and longevity.
Do as the Greeks do:
- Use extra-virgin olive oil for its monounsaturated fat and high levels of antioxidant compounds.
- Snack on a handful of nuts such as almonds, cashews, pistachios, and walnuts daily.
- Eat omega-3-rich fish—salmon, trout, mackerel, and herring—at least twice a week.
Drink red wine in moderation
Italy ranked third for wine consumption in 2014, behind the United States and France. For years, red wine’s resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant, was thought to reduce inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Newer studies have shown mixed results. Researchers speculate that resveratrol’s beneficial effects may be due to the high doses given in studies. Another theory is that other compounds in red wine might also be important. A 2015 study pointed to catechins and procyanidins in red wine for helping to reduce blood pressure.
Studies have also focused on resveratrol’s possible role in reducing age-related neurological disorders including macular degeneration, stroke, cognitive deficit, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Do as the Italians do:
Enjoy a glass of red. For women, moderate drinking means one glass a day; for men, two glasses, because men generally weigh more and metabolize alcohol better.
Replace salt with herbs and spices
For 3,000 years, herbs and spices have been part of Indian culture for their flavour and medicinal properties. Among the most commonly used are cumin, coriander, brown mustard, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, spicy red chili pepper, and curry, which is a blend of spices.
Replacing salt with herbs and spices has two benefits. One, decreased salt intake may lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Two, as scientists study herbs and spices, they’re isolating compounds that have antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties. These may provide protective benefits against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and neurological conditions.
Do as the Indians do:
- Experiment with different spices and herbs from India and around the world.
- Eat less processed food, which is often high in salt.
Adopt a plant-based diet
Unlike Western meat-based diets, many diets in other parts of the world are plant based. In Ethiopia, one of the main grains used is teff, an unrefined grain with excellent nutritional qualities. Beans and lentils, among the most versatile and nutritious foods available, often take the place of meat.
The evidence is clear: plants are good for us. People who eat mainly vegetarian diets have lower incidences of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and some cancers. Plus, people who eat plant-based diets generally avoid or limit their intake of processed food, sugar, and animal-based foods.
In one Harvard study, researchers found that replacing refined grains and red meats with an equal amount of whole grains has the potential to increase our lifespan by 8 to 20 percent.
Do as the Ethiopians do:
- Eat a variety of ancient grains (teff, quinoa, spelt, farro, bulgur, millet) and legumes to get a range of nutrients.
- Replace meat with beans, pulses, and grains.
- If using canned legumes, buy the low-sodium variety and rinse them with cold water before using.
Stop eating before you’re full
For the Japanese, hara hachi bunme or hara hachi bu, eating until they’re 80 percent full, is a traditional dietary control that achieves good health and longevity.
Current research backs them up. A number of clinical trials of food restriction in healthy adults have shown significant health benefits—reductions in body weight, blood cholesterol, blood glucose, and blood pressure—all of which decrease the chance of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Researchers have found that a low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet may help to delay age-related diseases and slow the aging process itself.
Do as the Japanese do:
- Pay attention to body cues for hunger and satiety.
- Eat slowly—it takes 15 to 20 minutes for your brain to register fullness.
- Eat small portions regularly to avoid getting too hungry and overeating.
Take a siesta
Ah Spain, with its midday siesta to help deal with the heat. Naps do more than cool us off. They may save our lives. A study of more than 23,000 healthy adults (also dedicated nappers) found that those who napped occasionally were 12 percent less likely to die from heart disease. Those who napped regularly had a 37 percent lower risk of coronary mortality.
Naps are also important to combat sleep deprivation, which is linked to the development of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression. A recent small study suggested naps relieve stress and bolster the immune system by reversing the hormonal impact of a poor night’s sleep.
Do as the Spanish do:
- If your schedule permits, nap regularly between 1 pm and 3 pm. Napping later than that can interfere with nighttime sleep.
- Set an alarm to avoid sleeping longer than 30 minutes.
- Darken the room or wear an eye mask.
- Nap on a sofa or comfortable armchair, not in bed, to avoid falling into a deep sleep.
Indulge in a treat and savour it
The “French paradox” refers to the fact that the French eat high-fat cuisine, yet have lower rates of obesity and heart disease than people in other Western countries. Scientists originally attributed this to their consumption of red wine. However, in a comparison of portion sizes in restaurants, cookbooks, and supermarkets, researchers discovered French portions were usually dramatically smaller than North American ones.
So yes, the French enjoy treats and a rich cuisine, but in moderation, while generally consuming a healthier and more varied diet of fewer calories overall than North Americans consume.
Do as the French do:
- Eat small portions of rich foods when you want to indulge, as part of an overall healthy diet.
- Savour the smell, texture, and taste of food, and you might be satisfied with less.
Eat more meals at home
In Poland, the number one reason people say they eat at home is to maintain health. Their home-cooked meals use basic ingredients such as fruits, vegetables, and grains. Home cooking can help cut calories while increasing nutrition. Numerous studies have shown home-cooked meals tend to be healthier than restaurant or takeout meals with fewer carbohydrates, less sugar, and less fat. What may be surprising is that people who regularly cook at home consume fewer calories when they eat out, possibly because they’re used to normal-sized meals, rather than oversized restaurant portions.
Do as the Poles do:
- Prepare recipes that emphasize whole, unprocessed ingredients such as beans, grains, and vegetables. (Check out our healthy recipes on alive.com.)
- Make larger batches for leftovers or to freeze for later.
- Get your kids involved. They’ll eat better, setting them up for a healthier life.
Ditch the car for a bike
Our modern, urban lifestyle has made it hard to engage in physical activity every day. By incorporating cycling as a form of active travel, people in the Netherlands have done just that. As well as providing daily exercise, cycling has a secondary effect on society as a whole by getting more cars off the road. This leads to reduced air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic accidents—a win for cyclists and non-cyclists alike.
An English study found that cycling for at least 60 minutes a week in total was associated with a 9 percent reduction in all-cause mortality.
Do as the Dutch do:
- Buy, rent, or borrow a bike and start cycling. Some cities now feature bike sharing.
- If you can’t cycle to work or school, cycle around the neighbourhood when running errands.
- Know and follow basic bike safety rules and etiquette.
- Help make your city more bike friendly by lobbying for more designated bicycle lanes or paths.
Want to increase your longevity?
“Blue zones” is a term coined to indicate places where statistically more people live long, healthy lives, often looking and acting decades younger than they are. The locations include
- Okinawa Island, Japan
- Sardinia, Italy
- Loma Linda, California
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
Although these culturally diverse areas span the globe, they share common characteristics that scientists believe produce the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world:
- participating in daily low-intensity physical activity
- building solid social networks of family and friends
- eating a mostly plant-based diet
- finding a purpose and sense of meaning in life
The good news is these traits can be learned. By making healthy lifestyle changes, we can turn the place we live into our personal blue zone.