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    The Blue Zone Exercise Paradox: Why Less May Be More

      |  Nov 29, 2023

    Have you heard of the Blue Zones? They’re five places in the world where residents live longer than people anywhere else on the planet. Discovered by Dan Buettner, a researcher for National Geographic, in 2004, the Blue Zones offer a wealth of knowledge around living better, healthier lives. And while some Blue Zone practices align with modern understandings of health and wellness, others are more surprising. Take for example: exercise.

    What is the Blue Zone exercise paradox?

    In America, we associate fitness with a strict gym routine and activities like lifting weights, competing in triathlons, and attending expensive exercise classes in sleek workout clothes. However, in Blue Zones, people engage in less high intensity, high impact workouts, and instead incorporate regular movement into their everyday lives. 

    These bouts of everyday movement are called exercise snacks, and they might be the key to staying fit and mobile into old age. Instead of long bouts of vigorous exercise, Blue Zone residents simply move every 20 minutes or so, not because of a reminder on their Apple Watch (although that’s not a bad idea) but simply because they’re environment and daily life prompts them, too. 

    Take Okinawa, Japan, a Blue Zone where the women have the longest life expectancy of any women on Earth. People in Okinawa rarely spend time on the couch. Their homes are furnished with tatami mats, which makes even sitting down and standing up an exercise in core and leg strength. 

    An exercise snack can also look like taking a long walk to the grocery store or a friend’s house, gardening, and/or using less mechanical processes. For example, a resident in the Blue Zone might make their own bread instead of purchasing it, which requires being on your feet and actions that activate your muscles, like kneading dough. 

    Benefits of exercising like a Blue Zone resident

    If the long, healthy lives of Blue Zone residents aren’t enough for you to get moving, consider the science. A study of more than 44,000 adults from across four different countries showed that engaging in 30 - 40 minutes of movement a day reduced the risk of early death. In fact, for participants who were otherwise sedentary, researchers saw a difference with just 11 minutes of added activity.

    This can be attributed to the risks of a sedentary lifestyle — something that’s become more common in the United States and other countries where workers spend more time at a desk than they do on their feet. Sedentary behavior can change gene activity, including your body’s ability to break down fat. Simply put, regular movement (even if you’re not paying for a fancy gym membership) can help increase your metabolism and decrease your risk of obesity and associated illnesses.

    How to incorporate movement

    Low impact exercise snacks might sound easy, but finding time to incorporate them into your day can be tough if you work a full time job. Start with easy swaps: grab your morning coffee from a cafe a little further than the spot on your block, or leave early for a dinner date so you can skip the subway. If you drive, consider replacing one daily car trip with a brisk walk or bike ride. 

    Gardening is also a great way to incorporate movement into your everyday routine. Since gardens require regular maintenance, you’ll need to get up and get moving to make your garden thrive. For those of us that don’t have space for a garden but still want to leverage our green thumb for good, try volunteering regularly at a community garden. 

    Remember that Apple Watch (the one Blue Zone residents aren’t using?) – it can be a useful tool in remembering to move your body. Any type of timer that you can easily set will work, too. Try getting up from your desk or wherever you sit every 20 minutes to stretch, walk to the kitchen for a glass of water, or take a dance break.

    Higher intensity workouts do have their place in a long, healthy life. What’s important to remember is that the best exercise you can do is one you can do regularly, and into old age. Find a routine that breaks a sweat — one you actually enjoy — and plan time to do it. This can be as simple as riding your bike to work, taking a pilates class with friends, or running in the park during your lunch break.

    Find the exercise routine that works for you

    Something as simple sounding as exercise can still be complicated. We all enjoy different activities, and have unique bodies with unique needs. Don’t waste time on routines that don’t work: with Modern Age’s Aging Wellness Assessment, you’ll work with a licensed clinician to create a data-backed exercise plan based on the results of your bloodwork and your health goals.