What We Can Learn From the World’s Centenarians
After 20 years of studying the world’s healthiest people, Dan Buettner has embraced midday naps, social connections over work, and a plant-based diet
There are many ways to live a healthy life. The Health Diaries is a weekly series about the habits that keep notable people living well.
Dan Buettner’s career sends him around the world in search of the healthiest habits, climates, and diets out there. He was working as a journalist when he wrote a story for National Geographic in 2005 about the world’s five so-called blue zones—places where people live the longest and healthiest lives on record. These zones include Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.
Since then, Buettner has become something of a longevity and health expert. He’s the executive director and founder of Blue Zones, a company that offers lessons on longevity and a suite of products that includes meal planners and self-assessment quizzes. Buettner is also a National Geographic fellow and helps implement Blue Zone projects all over the world. He’s currently finishing a book about the world’s healthiest diets.
Buettner shares with Medium his recipe for a life that’s purposeful, physically active, socially connected, and mostly plant-based.
I used an alarm clock to wake up every morning for years, but then I realized my sleep was more important than getting work done. These days, I wake up of my own volition unless an alarm clock is absolutely necessary. Usually that means getting up between 7 and 7:30 a.m., after eight or nine hours of sleep. Then I read the papers, eat my oatmeal, and go out for a morning walk. Usually I’m walking and talking on the phone at the same time. It’s gentle physical activity plus getting shit done, which feels good.
I eat oatmeal for breakfast for about half the year, during the colder months. But every year I hit a kind of terminal velocity with oatmeal eating and have to quit cold turkey, so then I eat a savory breakfast of beans, rice, yams, and avocados with hot sauce, or maybe a stew, such as minestrone or a Korean stew with black-eyed peas and fennel. With these breakfasts, there’s no midmorning sugar spike.
I’m on a plane almost 200 times per year. I live between Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Minneapolis, and then I’m usually on the road in one of the cities where we’re doing a Blue Zone project or for a speaking gig. This January, I slept in the same place for three consecutive weeks for the first time in three years.
No matter where I am, I’ll find time to get an hour of physical activity every day. My philosophy is to do what you love when you’re exercising. I can talk about the merits of cardio or CrossFit, but if you’re not loving it, 99 out of 100 people will quit. I do something fun in every place, every day. For example, after our conversation, I’m going to play pickleball. This morning, I biked down the hill to do some work at a cafe, then I took a walk while talking on the phone. I usually rotate between a racket sport, yoga, weight lifting, and bike riding, and then one day per week, I only do my morning walk. I mix it up. I also exercise with people so it becomes a thing I look forward to rather than an obligation or a box I have to check.
The vast majority of what I eat is plant-based. The five pillars of this diet are greens, nuts, whole grains, tubers, and beans. If I hit all five of those in a day, I won’t have much room left over for junk. Basically, I try to eat what the centenarians of the world eat in old age. I also try to get all my calories in an eight-hour window, so I don’t eat breakfast until later in the day if I had a late dinner the night before.
I do have a weakness for chips. I’m on a kind of see-food diet. What I mean is that if junk food is sitting around and I see it, I’m going to eat it. I’m working on breaking this habit by not saying I’m never eating chips again. Rather, I just keep them away from my house. I’ll share chips with you at your home.
I usually have happy hour with my girlfriend in the afternoons, after I’m done with work. Then I cook dinner two nights per week, and the other nights we’re probably going out, eating with friends. When you work from home, the evenings are your golden time to interact.
Before bed, I watch some of my favorite shows. I give myself about 20 minutes of a TV show I enjoy as my reward. It’s my intellectual repose at the end of an academically demanding day. Usually it’s The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, and then I try to be asleep by 11 p.m.
I take a nap almost every day. I’m blessed that in the afternoons, I can plunge into a deep sleep in about 10 minutes and feel completely refreshed. I also try to give myself time every day to research something I love. Today it was the Pima Indians of Mexico. I read up on them and dreamed of taking an expedition there someday.
I also try to take several short vacations every other month, rather than long vacations. We tend to enjoy planning vacations and remembering them more than the vacation itself, so having lots of vacations in the pipeline bodes for more satisfaction. My current obsession right now is ultralight backpacking, where you take off for four or five days at a time with a super-light bag.
I’ve been working in these blue zones for 20 years now, and I can’t help but follow the wisdom myself. I’ve gone mostly plant-based in my diet. I also used to suppress my social inclinations in favor of work, but now I know healthy connections are better for me, so I never deprive myself of that. I also nap. I put a higher priority on family. I reconnected to my faith early on in this research process. And I take time to consider what gives me purpose and to clearly articulate that. Having a clear sense of purpose makes decisions much easier.
As for advice, I often say: Don’t try to change your behaviors. Instead, change your surroundings. People in blue zones don’t have better genes or better discipline or any of that other crap we think brings better well-being. Instead, they have an environment that makes health an easier choice. Consider changing your environment to a place where eating healthier is easier, where you know your sense of purpose, and where that purpose guides your daily activities. You should also be surrounded by healthy people. For me, this sums up the essence of longevity and happiness.