Brian Mittge Commentary: Exciting ‘Blue Zones’ Effort Aims to Help Us Live Longer and Better


Would you like to have a longer, healthier life? 

Most of us would say, “yes, of course.”

But how?

It turns out there’s a way to do it. Researchers have not only cracked the secret, but have put together a simple set of steps to help communities make it easier for people to make the everyday decisions that lead to a healthier body and happier life.

It’s called Blue Zones, named after a half dozen places on the globe where people routinely live to be 100 years old — and are in good shape the whole time. 

Little things, like walking to the mailbox instead of driving, or eating until you’re 80% full instead of until you’re stuffed, will make a huge difference over the years. 

I first heard about Blue Zones a decade ago, when National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner talked about it to a group from Providence up in Bellevue. Since then I’ve tried to add its simple life changes to my routine. 

But a key part of Blue Zones is that it’s not just about what you or I chose to do individually. It turns out that communities can make some decisions that make it easier for the rest of us to make those good choices. 

If there are good, safe walking and bike paths, maybe we’ll get in a little more exercise. If restaurants offer a side of apple slices instead of just a side of fries, maybe we'll choose the healthier option sometimes. 

Buettner founded an organization that helps communities make those improvements, and last month I was so delighted to learn that Lewis County has the opportunity to join that effort. 

It’s called Blue Zones Activate. Our local coordinator of the effort is a Centralia High School graduate, former pharmacist and mother of three named Shawna Herriford. 

She asked me to meet about the project and, in keeping with the spirit of Blue Zones, we met at the Seminary Hill Natural Area and talked as we walked. 

“This is a really a community-led health and well being project focused on shifting our environment to make the healthier choices the easier choices,” Herriford said, “so we have more good years.”

Herriford will be talking about this project along with a national Blue Zones expert at 4:45 p.m. this Tuesday at the Chehalis Timberland Library. There are only 50 seats in the room — wouldn’t it be something if we packed out the house? 

Having a happier, healthier, longer life is within our reach. If we work together, we can all get there together. 

How the ‘Power 9’ Can Add a  Decade to Your Life

Researchers with the Blue Zones project crossed the globe and distilled the secrets of living longer, healthier lives down to nine main principles:

1. Move Naturally: The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.

2. Purpose: The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.

3. Downshift: Have routines to shed stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.

4. 80% Rule: In Okinawa they say a 2,500-year old Confucian mantra before meals, reminding themselves to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.

5. Plant Slant: Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat, mostly pork, is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of a deck of cards.

6. Wine at 5: People in all blue zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday.

7. Belong: All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.

8. Loved Ones First: Successful centenarians in the blue zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love.

9. Right Tribe: The world’s longest lived people chose (or were born into) social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”— groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Loneliness is contagious. So is happiness. 

You don’t have to do all of these — even incorporating a few into your life will make a difference. 



This column has been  updated to correctly spell the name of Shawna Herriford. 

Brian Mittge can be reached at