Everyone deserves to be happy, healthy and calm on a day-to-day basis. Yet as we all know, life has a way of putting itself between us and our well-intentioned plans for personal improvement. The trick, it seems, isn’t fighting the waves but learning instead to go with the flow — listen to your body and establish a balanced pattern of activities that prepare you to accept whatever it is the universe happens to fling your way. Lifestyles which promote better health and longevity have been found to share several unifying components: a sense of purpose (like volunteering or caring for a loved one), a daily, “primal” source of physical exertion (such as walking, biking or gardening), strong connections to other people, a primarily vegetarian diet, and a rational approach to life’s varying assortment of stressors.
Written about recently and referred to as the “blue zone lifestyle”, this approach to diet, socialization and physical activity is in opposition to what many Americans now consider “normal.” Today we accept minimal physical activity, social isolation, chronic stress, and too much bad food as inevitable aspects of modernity. However, this isn’t the case everywhere, and it doesn’t have to be for you, either. But such a dramatic reorganization of one’s priorities and overall perception of life on Earth isn’t necessarily easy at first, especially because this means going against many of the dominant traits of our consumer culture.
Studies of the residents living in “blue zones” – parts of the world with higher concentrations of centenarians, or people living 100 years or more – have given researchers clues as to which behaviors lead to better health and longevity. It’s been found that these individuals eat a lot of complex carbohydrates with moderate or low amounts of fat and protein. In other words, they eat more vegetables and grains than they do meat, and typically avoid processed, artificial foods. A carefully-planned vegetarian diet can provide plenty of iron, protein, calcium, and other minerals and vitamins. It is also high in fiber and low in saturated fat. Such a diet can also prevent or at least reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
A vegetarian diet is also better for the environment than a diet centered on the consumption of meat. Raising animals for slaughter takes a significant toll on planet, more than most people are even aware of. Meat’s carbon footprint contributes more harmful emissions to the air than all our cars, planes, trains, and ships combined. And as populations around the world continue to swell, the fact that raising livestock eats up land and precious resources demands we look a little closer at the culture we’ve built around it. With the vast majority of our meat coming from factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations, it’s not only an eco-friendly choice to drop your meat habit, but an ethically responsible one as well. We would all benefit from taking food writer Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Daily exercise is also an important element in any healthy lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym to see “results.” Shoveling snow the old-fashioned way for an hour burns up over 570 calories. Just one generation ago, people didn’t rely on treadmills or similar torture devices; they got their exercise simply by working around the house and incorporating movement into their daily routine. The average 190-pound man can burn up 384 calories an hour by raking leaves. Sanding the floor can burn up 283 calories per hour – but not if you use an electric floor sander. To get the full benefits our grandparents enjoyed, tap into the low tech way of interacting with your environment: you might even discover you’re happier breaking a sweat without paying monthly for it.
Chronic stress, and the demons of depression and anxiety, also plague the health of many contemporary Americans. Yoga and meditation are two effective methods for relieving stress, and there are many streaming videos devoted to both disciplines. Several large cable providers like Dish, DirecTV and Comcast offer such programs, which can be accessed even if you’re on-the-go. Another method for relieving emotional stress is a relative of meditation called “mindfulness.” Its practitioners seek to improve concentration so they can focus on their present activities without distractions or worries. The idea is to become more aware of one’s present connection to the environment and less distracted overall. One attractive aspect of mindfulness is that a practitioner needs to devote only 10 or 20 minutes per session every day to start to gain the benefits.