Living Like Manuelito: Adding Life to Your Years
Our guide called him an angel, and I felt like meeting him was a gift from heaven. His name was Manuelito, and we met him on a mountain.
My husband and I recently visited Ecuador. During our time there, we went trekking through the avenue of the volcanoes. We spent several days hiking from hostel to hostel enjoying the beautiful landscape and countryside of Ecuador. We were fortunate to have a guide, but during one of the last days of the trek, we reached an area where the trails were confusing, and we weren't quite sure which way to go to get over the mountain and to the next village. Hiking along we encountered a heard of sheep, which is not uncommon in the countryside, and shortly thereafter we saw a small building and an older man. He seemed very friendly and so we asked him for directions. As he tried to explain and we asked for more clarification, he decided it was best to just show us the way. He grabbed his walking stick and led the way. As we walked, he told us his story. Manuelito was in his 70’s and had about 100 acres of land in that area he used to graze his sheep and a few cattle. However, the house where he lived with his wife, was about an hour away on foot. Each morning he would leave his house about 8 am to come to his farm land and would return on his trek home about 4 pm each afternoon. Manuelito had suntanned skin and stood no more than 5’5”. He was lean and very quick. I guess I should mention that we were hiking at about 13,000 ft. of elevation. I was fascinated with Manuelito. One of the reasons for my fascination is that this older gentleman was practically running up the mountain. In fact, he was going so fast, I had to stop three times because I was so out of breath I felt nauseated. I couldn't believe this man was in such great shape! Manuelito ended up guiding us for at least half an hour, and it’s an experience I will never forget. I don't know how long he will live, but what I do know for sure is that he is a perfect example of how our lifestyle can add years to our life and life to our years. I imagined this is what it might feel like to live in a blue zone.
The Blue Zones are places around the world that have an unusually high number of healthy centenarians, or people that have made it beyond 100 in good health. There have been 5 natural blue zones identified: Okinawa, Japan, Ikaria Greece, the Barbagia region of Sardinia, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and Loma Linda, CA. Qualitative research has found that there are 9 common principles that may explain why people in these areas live well for so long. It can be summarized into what is known as the power 9.
In the Blue Zones, your environment largely determines your health outcomes. In other words, your life today is likely to be highly influenced by where you live, work and play, and who you spend time with. Of the 9 principles, here are 4 that I want to highlight you can begin to apply today.
Natural Movement: Depending on how you see it, living in the mountainous region of Ecuador may be seen as a headache or a blessing. Manuelito used his legs to get around. His daily two hour commute was not by car or train; it was by foot and the road often went straight up. I would love to have put my Fitbit on Manuelito for a week; my average step count would be amazing. In our modern world, we seek to conserve energy by using conveniences such as cars. This often results in less movement. The irony of the situation is Manuelito has never heard of a Fitbit or step counts. He walks and moves this much because it is a necessity and his lifestyle. People living in Blue Zones walk an average of 5-6 miles per day. They do this by doing tasks such as running errands or doing house chores and gardening. They also tend to move constantly throughout the day instead of being sedentary. This type of movement helps with improved muscle mass, bone strength and circulation. They also don't let age stop them - they move because they must! Move more now so that you can slow down aging and have independence longer.
Plant-Slant: The people of Ecuador are lucky to have a richness in biodiversity and ecology. They have an abundance of fruits, vegetables, grains and beans. Some of their staples include corn, potatoes, quinoa and plantains. Of course, they also eat meat, but people like Manuelito who subsist on their farming don't necessarily eat meat frequently. People that live in blue zones eat around 80-90% of their calories from plants and usually in their whole form. Beans are especially associated with longevity likely because they contain fiber, complex carbohydrates and antioxidants. We know that 80-90% of chronic disease in the United States is preventable with diet and lifestyle. Imagine adopting a diet that has the power to prevent some of the most dreaded diseases!
Purpose: Manuelito was not thinking about retirement. From our conversation, I learned that he works hard to provide for his family and I could tell that he took that role seriously. My grandfather is also like this, and at 87, he still works every day at his farm. Work keeps him going, and it is his purpose in life. A study published in the Lancet in 2014 found that when over 9,000 adults 65 and older were surveyed, those who had greater wellbeing scores had a 30% decreased chance of dying over the next 8 and 1/2 years. One of the measures of wellbeing was a sense of purpose in life.
Downshift: Everyone experiences stress, but we know that chronic stress can affect our health in serious ways. Chronic stress actively damages your DNA, shortens your telomeres and directly shortens your lifespan by as much as 8 years. Finnish scientists found that those with the highest levels of work stress tend to have shorter telomeres. When I first read about the sheep herders in the Blue Zone in Ikaria, Greece, I imagined that it would be relaxing, but I was literally giddy when we met a man who lived in this way. Imagine getting to walk to work in beautiful scenery and then tend to your peaceful sheep with the sounds of nature in the background. Not everyone can choose this lifestyle, but what you do every day that will bring you peace and relaxation?
You may not want to live to 100, but do you want to have as much vitality as you can in the years that you do live? We have sufficient evidence that we can implement diet and lifestyle changes that can decease our risk of experiencing prolonged physical suffering during our lives. Americans live at average of 9.4 years in debility and 17 years in poor health at the end of their lives. Nobody is going to live forever, and there are no guarantees, but we can make the years that we do live more fun and full of joy. Would you rather be hiking in the Andes in your 70’s or looking at heading into a nursing home? Practicing the principles of the blue zones not only adds years to your life (about 10-12 years that is), but LIFE to your years.