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  • Writer's pictureDave Balzer

What the Blue Zones teach us about community, health, and longevity

Human beings are innately a social species. It's hard-wired in our DNA and this is why Community is my 5th Pillar of Health and Wellness.

From birth, we rely on our mothers to assist and guide us in regulating our body systems and emotions -- warm/cold, hunger, sleep, skin-to-skin comfort. This support system grows as we age to family and friends -- a social tribe. The community we create acts as a support system not just for us socially, but also for our internal immune and nervous systems. Just like nutrition, these social connections act as fuel to strengthen mind and body. This is especially clear when the body is experiencing a physical or mental health crisis as it may endure an inflammatory cascade which has a massive impact on the immune, nervous, and musculoskeletal function.

Have you ever been so stressed out you ended up catching a cold? That is a reality,... it's your body telling you to slow down and refocus on healthy habits. Your immune system can be compromised acutely and chronically based on stress. The acute version may lead to a short term illness such as a higher susceptibility to a cold or flu, but the chronically compromised state is much more detrimental to our health and often acts as a slow, silent villain within our body. These chronically stressed states have been shown to be directly linked to many mental health conditions and autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. Recent posts have discussed the benefits of physical activity, nutrition, sleep hygiene, and mindfulness to help improve health and performance, but the missing factor for many people in regards to healing in today's culture is a sense of purpose, belonging, and community.

Healthy social connections in times of need lead to the release of neurotransmitters oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and endocannabinoids. This, in turn, boosts immune function, reduces pain, and fortifies a sense of safety within the body when dealing with acute or chronic pain, stress, or dysfunction.

Lake Louise - Banff National Park - Alberta, Canada

Our DNA evolved to require a support system both in times of trouble and triumph. The downside of this evolved socially selected trait has been on display throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The world has never been more connected technologically, yet somatically disconnected at the same time through distractibility, loneliness, negative self-talk, and loss of purpose in life. The rising rates of chronic disease, chronic pain, mental health conditions, and deaths of despair demonstrates the yearning for more authentic connection and community.

“Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered "intrinsic" to human happiness and far outweigh "extrinsic" values such as beauty, money and status.”
- Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

So, who can we learn from to help reestablish this authentic connection and community? The famous "Blue Zones" are often studied in regards to nutrition and longevity, but the research on the Blue Zones also proves the importance of community in regards to health and longevity. So, what are the Blue Zones. They are five distinct areas around the world that have the most concentrated population of centenarians. Pretty fascinating right!

Okinawa Island, Japan

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Sardinia, Italy

Loma Linda, California

Ikaria, Greece.

Here are four common traits of the Blue Zones in regards to community: Purpose, Belong, Loved One's First, and Right Tribe.

1. Purpose: The Okinawans call it "ikigai" and the Nicoyans call it "plan de vida"... they both translate to "why I wake up in the morning". Research shows living with a sense of purpose leds to adopting healthier lifestyles, and therefore increasing healthspan.

2. All current Blue Zone centenarians report belonging to a faith-based community.

3. They put Family First by investing in their children, committing to a life partner, and cherishing the aging adult.

4. "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with". Centenarians surround themselves with the Right Tribe -- a social circle that supports healthy behaviors. Many participate in group activities such as walking, dancing, or gardening which coupled together are great for social interaction and regular, moderate physical activity.

This all sounds great on paper and I'm sure makes a lot of sense, but for many taking action can provoke anxiety and fear. I understand it can be very challenging to reach out to join a new community, especially when dealing with chronic pain, stress, or dysfunction. So, I'd like to welcome you to my community that serves and supports YOU and your healthy behaviors.

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” – Mitch Albom


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