Today, almost anything you could ever want is available at the touch of a button. It seems that we have it all in the palm of your hand. But, do we really “have it all”?
Recent research would suggest not. Modern man is missing one very key ingredient for “having it all”— quality of life. A 23-year study spanning 188 countries published in the Lancet in August suggests life expectancy has risen by six years since 1990, while health and quality of life are on the decline.
Countries ranked with the longest life expectancies in the study include Japan, Singapore, Andorra and Iceland— just to name a few. The U.S. didn’t even make the top 10. Among the top 10, only two countries, Japan and Italy, have cities that have been dubbed “blue zones” by a National Geographic project that began in 2008. Blue zones are areas where longevity, health, and quality of life actually converge.
Outside the “blue zone”
According to the Lancet study, most people in countries with longer life expectancies are spending those added years of life sick or hospitalized. In the U.S., the leading causes for healthy years lost are heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, diabetes, low back and neck pain, and depressive disorders— all conditions, it should be noted, that can be prevented.
The results of the study have drudged up a number of opinions over why, with all the advancements in science, medicine and technology, is health and quality of life so low? Some experts readily point to a lack of access to quality health care in the U.S. and developing nations, but when you look at the countries, or even better the blue zones, with the highest life expectancy and quality of life, the common factor isn’t a stalwart government-funded healthcare system.
These countries have standout life expectancies, superior health, and better overall quality of life because things like physical activity and eating fresh, locally grown foods are incorporated into daily living. People in these areas walk everywhere they need to go and spend their days gardening, volunteering in the community and caring for family members, young and old. In these places, life is lived at a much slower pace, and family and community connections are much stronger than in most parts of the world.
This is all in stark contrast to the lives of Americans, where sedentary jobs, social isolation, socioeconomic disparities and chronic stress are at all-time highs, along with diets rich in calorically dense, low-nutrient-value, processed foods. Here, it is possible to drive or ride almost anywhere (outside of urban parts of the country, walking is an antiquated notion) or, if you prefer to go nowhere at all, the world is at your fingertips with the ease of smartphones, and accessible 24/7 from the comfort of your couch.
Hope for change
These findings aren’t really news to the physicians, health care professionals and public health advocates that have been urging their followers, patients and, hopefully, the government, to make effective change to the American culture. There has been a push to educate consumers and influence policies that will promote lifestyles that embody health and longevity.
These efforts are met with mixed messages from so-called experts and marketing campaigns that leave consumers frustrated and therefore stagnant in making positive changes. But change is easier than you may think, and it doesn’t require following any of the fad principles splashed across the media.
Influence your health and longevity with simple changes to your daily life:
• Eat more vegetables. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to live healthy, but you do need to eat a lot of vegetables. Plant-based foods are the primary source of nutrients for these longevity cultures. Strive for one pound of vegetables per day or at least consider a 7:1 ratio of vegetable servings to meat servings.
• Walk more. You don’t have to run a marathon or walk to work to embrace healthy living. Instead, look at the places you go every day— are some close enough that you could walk or ride your bike? If that’s not an option, how about at the office? Can you walk around the building on your lunch break? Also consider playing outside with your kids after work, or going to the park or explore your neighborhood on foot during the weekends.
• Grow a garden. Gardening can offer you fresh, locally grown food free from chemicals, pesticides and preservatives. Even if you only have a small patio, you can grow a number of fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables in a pot. Gardening can also be a great outdoor activity for you or the whole family.
• Garner social support. A key feature of these cultures is extensive social support. Entire generations of family members live and work in close proximity. And most people are involved in community events and gatherings. If you don’t have family nearby, volunteer or join groups to commune with like-minded people.
• Stop obsessing. Strive for balance, not perfection. Give your body what it needs to function and participate in activities that fuel the body and mind. Use balance as your guiding principle (that includes limiting the time spent on your computer and smartphone).
To truly embrace a healthy lifestyle that promotes longevity and quality of life, don’t follow the fads. In the countries where health and longevity goals are synonymous, certain food groups are not demonized and there is no trendy exercise that is the secret to being fit forever. These cultures have achieved a level of balance in their lifestyles that meets all the basic needs (not wants) for the body to function optimally.