Could the Blue Zone’s exercise secrets hold the key to vital ageing?

Could the Blue Zone’s exercise secrets hold the key to vital ageing?

Want to sparkle with vitality as you age? Then take some tips from the world’s fittest centenarians, says personal trainer and nutrition expert Gideon Remfry. 

Staying fit and well has never been more at the forefront of our minds. As we head into 2021, we’re all looking for ways to keep our bodies, minds and immune systems healthy. For many of us, part of this drive for optimal wellness will include exercising, something that research tells us is a very good strategy if we want to enjoy good health and vitality as we age.

Some 72% of all global deaths in 2016 were caused by chronic lifestyle disease, with lack of physical activity a large attributing factor. Indeed, there is abundant and compelling research to suggest that regular exercise provides a greater quality of life and perhaps even increases longevity[1].

But nobody highlights the power of daily movement more than the residents of some of the world’s longest-living cultures. Collectively known as the ‘Blue Zones’, these optimal wellness enclaves are home to an extraordinarily high number of people who live far longer than average, often into their 90s and beyond. But not only do Blue Zone residents live longer, they also remain healthy and vital well into their old age.

The Blue Zones can be found scattered throughout the globe, from Okinawa in Japan to Ikaria in Greece. But while the different Blue Zones may have radically different diets, cultures and lifestyles, these centenarians do have one longevity secret in common: they may be fit, but you won’t find many of them in the gym!

So how do Blue Zoners get their exercise, and how can we replicate their vitality secrets in our own lifestyles? Let’s have a look at the evidence to find out.

Blue Zone Secret One - harness the power of NEAT

Blue Zoners move all day in a natural way. From tending their vegetable plots to strolling to meet a friend, they live in environments that nudge them into moving naturally, without thinking about it[2].

The scientific name for this kind of natural daily movement is NEAT, which stands for Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. NEAT is all the non-planned physical activity you do each day, like climbing stairs, walking, cooking and brushing your teeth. These types of movement may seem insignificant, but when added up NEAT may account for as many as 2,000 calories per day of energy output.

Boosting your NEAT is easy and offers an achievable way of building more movement into your day. Doing so may help you maintain a healthy body weight and improve wellness. A simple tip is to replace “movement conveniences” like escalators and short car journeys with their physical activity equivalents – walking up the stairs or strolling to the local shops. Leaner people simply move more each day - no gym or HIIT training required[3][4].

Blue Zone Secret Two - buddy up

Friendships don’t just make you feel good, they may also help you live longer. People in the Blue Zone have been found to share a strong sense of social connection, with family ties and friendly neighbours providing a source of both intellectual stimulation and emotional support.

But friends may also help us with our exercise efforts, too. Research suggests having an exercise buddy or workout tribe may increase your enjoyment, motivation and commitment to physical activity. One study compared group and individual exercise and highlighted the group exercisers as having ‘higher degrees of enjoyment and intrinsic motivation’ which was linked to the social interaction during the physical activity[5].

The motivational power of friendship is something I’ve recently had the pleasure to discover for myself. Although I’ve always had a cordial relationship with my neighbours, our relationship never went much beyond the occasional wave hello. All that changed during the first lockdown in 2020.

During our conversations over the garden fence, we started to share how we felt about the lockdown experience. Cabin fever, low mood and stress were common themes, as was the fact that everyone seemed to be gaining weight. We decided to become exercise buddies and the ‘Buckingham Bikers’ WhatsApp group was born. This locked four of us neighbours into a weekly bike ride, something which continues to this day.

Blue Zone Secret Three - exercise moderately

From gardening to physically demanding chores, Blue Zone residents have a diverse range of ways to get their daily activity. But what these healthy centenarians all seem to share is that they exercise moderately.

As such, it may well be worth parking the ‘go hard or go home’ exercise dogma which leads so many of us into starting hard, followed by just going home and staying there! Instead, make like the Blue Zoners and embrace the power of moderate exercise. This clever strategy shows excellent outcomes for weight loss, increasing strength, building self-confidence, promoting a positive outlook and decreasing risk of lifestyle disease.

Before starting any exercise regime, it’s worth taking the time to plan and build into it slowly. This gives your body time to adapt to the physical stress of training and helps your brain adapt to the discipline of doing it regularly, increasing mental buy-in.

When it comes to choosing which type of exercise you should be doing, studies show good results from combining both resistance and cardio exercise - something our Blue Zoners do naturally in the course of their daily lives.

To get both of these forms of exercise in one, circuit resistance training creates a nice mix and gives you most bang for your buck. Not sure where to start? My plan will help you get going, and it’s easy to do from home. You will only need a small area but find a space free from objects and hazards and have some water and a towel handy.

Body weight resistance training circuit

The exercises:

1. Side to side Cossack squat x 6 each side.

Side to side cossack squat


2. Chair tricep dips x 12

Chair tricep dip


3. Alternate Supermans (on all fours) x 6 each side

Alternate supermans


4. Alternate lunges x 12 each leg

Alternate lunges


5. Reverse table-top hip extensions x 12

Reverse table-top hip extensions


6. Side bridge hold x 6 seconds each side

Side bridge hold


7. Curl up x 12

Curl up


8. Mountain climbers x 12 alternate knees

Mountain Climbers



Aim for three circuits of the exercises in rotation with minimal rest in between sets. The program can be done three times per week, but take at least a day’s rest in-between each workout.

Key coaching tips:

Keep your core (your butt and abs) strong throughout each of the movements and let your technique guide the amount of reps you can do. It’s better to have good exercise form throughout, rather than bad extra reps.
Aim for a moderate speed for each movement, which translates into a slow and controlled tempo. This creates more efficient muscle loading and subsequent strength and muscle gains.
Breathe steady and aim to exhale on exertion (as you curl up from floor) and inhale as you return (as you lower back down).
Aim for dynamic posture. Keep your body long with awareness of good posture throughout all exercises.
If three circuits is too much to start with, try doing one circuit for two weeks, then two circuits for two weeks until you’ve built up to three.

Whether you choose my workout or your own form of activity like walking or cycling, how do you make sure you’re exercising moderately? The next step is to work out simple ways to gauge how often, how hard and how long you should be working out for.

Duration

The World Health Organisation suggests that adults should exercise moderately for 150 minutes each week, which works out to 22 minutes each day[6]. So start with 22-30 minutes of exercise per day in activities that work both your heart and skeletal muscle (known as aerobic endurance).

Intensity

A moderate intensity is a level that keeps your heart elevated to the point where you can hold a basic conversation but are slightly out of breath[7]. A great way to gauge this intensity without a heart rate monitor is by measuring your perceived exertion on a scale between 1-10.

With 1 representing the exercise being very easy and 10 representing your maximum effort;
moderate exercise would fall between 5-6 on this scale. This is the approximate equivalent of 60+% of your maximum heart rate[8][9].

Blue Zone Secret Four - find ways to enjoy exercise (even if that includes tech)

If circuit resistance training really doesn’t float your exercise boat, don’t sweat it. It’s far more important that you do something you enjoy. Blue Zone residents were found to do tai chi, martial arts and dancing because they found these activities pleasurable, with some able to find the joy even in the physical hard work of chores.

With that in mind, why not try cycling, boxing, dancing, fast walking, yoga or skipping? Anything you find fun will mean you’re more likely to want to carry it on.

And although you wouldn’t find many Blue Zoners using a Fitbit, tech that tracks your daily physical activity can be a beneficial way to build enjoyment and commitment because receiving instant feedback on the results of your hard work is so satisfying. A large review in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness suggested that weight loss interventions using tech to track activity may reap better results and compliance than the standard weight loss program.

Most smartphones have step tracking options. But beyond your phone, there are numerous activity trackers, from the expensive high-tech options like the Oura Ring and Garmin Pro watches right through to cheaper wearables like clip-on pedometers.

But what should you track? Well, we previously discussed the power of NEAT and its importance, so tracking this aspect of non planned movement by measuring your daily step count is a great (and easy) way to start. Aiming for over 10,000 steps a day will help you create a consistent Blue Zone style approach to energy balance (calories v calories out).

If your tracking application also has the capacity to add your planned exercise (workouts) you can log your runs, yoga, circuit training etc. These planned workouts together with your steps (NEAT), show you the combined total of your exercise energy output each day and most importantly track its consistency.

As a side note, total physical activity equates to approximately 30+ % of your total daily calorie output (calorie burning). The rest of the calories used comes from your body’s energy to run itself (what I call keeping the engine running), known as BMR or basal metabolic rate. BMR accounts for approximately 60% energy output leaving the final 10% used in digesting your food[10][11].

Tracking could include checking you achieve both your NEAT goals of over 10,000 steps per day and your 22-30 minutes of planned workouts. Most importantly, tech tracking can be used to gauge and motivate consistency of all of your physical activity as consistency is key.

Are you ready to create your own Blue Zone?

As we can see from the long-lived residents of the Blue Zone, improving your mental and physical health with exercise could be the key to longevity. It’s all about creating daily habits which add up to meaningful change.

There are no quick fitness fixes, but with a relatively small amount of commitment you have the capacity to experience the effects of exercise as medicine for the mind and body which helps you live a little better each day, something I like to call vital ageing.

While starting is the hardest part, you don’t have to be good at exercise to start doing something you enjoy.

Here are some final tips to get you started:
1. Set a firm intention and start date.
2. Commit to a six-week plan which gives enough time to get results and embed good habits.
3. Choose the exercise that you enjoy because fun and feeling good are far greater motivators than fear and loathing.
4. Practically plan your workout space, equipment and outfit.
5. The same way you would schedule an important event, plan the 22-30 minutes of exercise into your daily routine.
6. Find a workout buddy. You can partner up with any friend or family member who is willing to commit to become your workout buddy either in person or online. This will support motivation, enjoyment, and compliance.

In the words of a well-known sports brand…just do It!

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might like Introducing Inessa’s New Guest Contributor – Gideon Remfry.

References
(1) Anderson E., Durstine L. J. (2019). Physical activity, exercise, and chronic diseases: A brief review, Sports Medicine and Health Science,
Volume 1, Issue 1, 2019, Pages 3-10, ISSN 2666-3376, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smhs.2019.08.006
(2) https://www.bluezones.com/#section-1
(3) Levine J. A. (2002). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Best practice & research. Clinical endocrinology & metabolism, 16(4), 679–702. https://doi.org/10.1053/beem.2002.0227
(4) Villablanca, P. A., Alegria, J. R., Mookadam, F., Holmes, D. R., Jr, Wright, R. S., & Levine, J. A. (2015). Nonexercise activity thermogenesis in obesity management. Mayo Clinic proceedings, 90(4), 509–519. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2015.02.001
(5) Pedersen, M. T., Vorup, J., Nistrup, A., Wikman, J. M., Alstrøm, J. M., Melcher, P. S., Pfister, G. U., & Bangsbo, J. (2017). Effect of team sports and resistance training on physical function, quality of life, and motivation in older adults. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 27(8), 852–864. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12823
(6) https://www.who.int/health-topics/physical-activity#tab=tab_1
(7) Kelley, G. A., Kelley, K. S., & Pate, R. R. (2019). Exercise and adiposity in overweight and obese children and adolescents: a systematic review with network meta-analysis of randomised trials. BMJ open, 9(11), e031220. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2019-031220
(8) Mays, R. J., Goss, F. L., Nagle, E. F., Gallagher, M., Schafer, M. A., Kim, K. H., & Robertson, R. J. (2014). Prediction of VO2 peak using OMNI Ratings of Perceived Exertion from a submaximal cycle exercise test. Perceptual and motor skills, 118(3), 863–881. https://doi.org/10.2466/27.29.PMS.118k28w7
(9) Nebiker, L., Lichtenstein, E., Minghetti, A., Zahner, L., Gerber, M., Faude, O., & Donath, L. (2018). Moderating Effects of Exercise Duration and Intensity in Neuromuscular vs. Endurance Exercise Interventions for the Treatment of Depression: A Meta-Analytical Review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 305. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00305
(10) Cheatham, S. W., Stull, K. R., Fantigrassi, M., & Motel, I. (2018). The efficacy of wearable activity tracking technology as part of a weight loss program: a systematic review. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 58(4), 534–548. https://doi.org/10.23736/S0022-4707.17.07437-0
(11) Levine J. A. (2005). Measurement of energy expenditure. Public health nutrition, 8(7A), 1123–1132. https://doi.org/10.1079/phn2005800

Post author

Gideon Remfry

Gideon is a nutrition, functional medicine and fitness expert. With 25 years experience, he was selected as one of the top 25 trainers in the world by Men’s Fitness. His client list includes A-list celebrities, elite athletes and he’s also wellness director for world renowned luxury health clubs KX & KXU. Gideon regularly lectures on sports nutrition and has written for the likes of Vogue, Men’s Health, and The Sunday Times.

Instagram @gideonjremfry