There are 5 Blue Zones in the world, places where people consistently live over 100 years old, and the Okinawa archipelago in Japan is one of them.
Live far enough away from your family so you’re not running into them every day, but close enough to bring them a warm bowl of soup on foot.Okinawan saying
According to Japan’s health ministry, the number of people over 100 years old in the country has recently reached the record of 86,510, 6,060 more than in 2020 and significantly high compared to the only 153 centenarians in 1963, when the records begin. In Okinawa however, the percentage of people over 100 is almost double than in Japan as a whole.
Dr Bradley Willcox, a geriatrician at the University of Hawaii and Director of the Kuakini Center for Translational Research on Aging, and his twin brother Craig, an anthropologist at the Okinawa International University, have been studying centenarians on the islands for over 20 years and they say that socializing is one of the reasons many Okinawans live healthily to 100, and more.
Dr Willcox revealed some of the findings of his research and summarized it in 6 most important practices behind the Okinawans’ longevity.
1. Hara hachi bu, healthy food and exercise
Hara hachi bu is the concept of eating until only 80% full and it is commonly practiced by Okinawans. Their diet is mostly plant based, including over a kilogram of fruits and vegetables a day. Instead of bread, they eat sweet potatoes as a carbohydrate source, which is a far better alternative as they have a lower glycaemic load.
Okinawans also consider the body is a temple and it should not be polluted, so they rarely drink alcohol or smoke.
2. Stay positive and focus on your ikigai
Ikigai is the Japanese word for sense of purpose and, according to the study, most Okinawans have it. One man’s ikigai consisted in his two prize bulls, whom he took care of every day. For other people ikigai is also represented by family or faith.
Dr Willcox revealed that all the older people they met during the study had a positive attitude, being generally optimistic and having a carefree approach to life. “They’re fun, loving people”, he said.
3. Keep your mind occupied
Okinawans do not know the concept of retirement, the word does not even exist in their language. They believe in keeping occupied and they what they have always done until they no longer can. This contributes to their ikigai and increases life satisfaction. It also keeps them physically active, not just mentally, which means they are healthier overall.
For Okinawans, social life is very important. They have large families, strong social support networks and generally a very close community where “everybody knows everybody”. They meet regularly in social groups called moai, where women talk and drink tea, while men might drink some alcohol or smoke cigarettes.
5. Try not to stress
The research shows that the people of Okinawa are very good at dealing with stress, in the sense that they do not do it much. Over time, they have learned how to handle tragedy and pain in the healthiest ways. They also do not worry about time, specifically about getting things done in time. Take have their own pace and things get done sooner or later, but never in a hurry.
Dr Willcox said his team found a stress-resilience gene in Hawaii, called FOXO3A, and if a person has just one copy of the gene from one of their parents, the chances of reaching 100 are doubled or even tripled. He added that although “Okinawans have a very minimally higher percentage of this gene, they make the most of it”.
6. Embrace spirituality
Okinawans have their own religion and are very spiritual people. Even though Buddhism has been integrated a little into the culture, the traditional religion is still largely practiced. They believe there is a spiritual energy in everything and every year they visit their ancestors and have a picnic to talk to them, as if they were still alive. For them, this creates a sense of continuity through generations.
The religion is run by women, each village having a priestess. Dr Willcox explained the women are very in tune, “not just with themselves, but with nature” and they go to sacred woods around Okinawa where they meditate and pray for peace and health. “They’re among the most healthy and powerful women I’ve ever seen”, he said.