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Making UNC a Blue Zone – And I’m Not Talking about the One in Kenan Stadium

For over a decade, explorer Dan Buettner studied regions around the world with the longest-living populations and lowest rates of chronic illness. After multiple expeditions with National Geographic and a team of scientists, Buettner identified five regions where people live the longest, healthiest and happiest lives. He dubbed them the Blue Zones: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. 

Buettner and his team studied the unique diet and lifestyle practices of each Blue Zone. They learned there was no individual path or strict blueprint to wellness. Instead, they found common denominators, such as shared values and lifestyle habits, across all the Blue Zones. These lessons looked different in practice in each area, but they ultimately helped each zone achieve the same goals of longevity and happiness. Buettner has since written several books on how we can apply these lessons from the Blue Zones to improve communities like ours at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

We have a remarkable opportunity to learn from the Blue Zones and bring their life-giving strategies to campus. Here are a few of the lessons Buettner gathered from the Blue Zones and how I think we could all apply them throughout our time at UNC.

1. Move Naturally.

    • The world’s longest-living populations are not dominated by weight-lifters and triathletes. The real trend is low-intensity exercise. For most people in Blue Zones, the natural movements, namely walking, that come with their active lifestyles help maintain their health. Historically, the geographic isolation of Okinawa, Ikaria, and Sardinia has limited industrial road access. As a result, people in these regions have been less reliant on public transportation and commonly opt for walking.  
    • Apply: Most of us already implement this! Walking, whether to class or down Franklin, is the simplest way to incorporate daily exercise. Don’t underestimate the health benefits of walking instead of ubering to the Dean Dome.

2. Know You Have a Purpose. 

    • In each Blue Zone, people have a strong sense of purpose. It is their daily source of drive, how they can find meaning in the menial. Costa Ricans call it “Plan de vida.” Japanese call it “Ikigai.” While they have different names for purpose, they equally emphasize it. Many centenarians root their purpose in faith and family. Buettner interviewed a 102-year-old Okinawan man who found his purpose every day in taking care of his prized bulls.  
    • Apply: In a competitive environment like UNC, it is easy to lose sight of the things we find meaningful. The resounding goal for most students is long-term success, and they are pressured to take all the right steps to achieve it. This pursuit of success often overshadows significance. Yes, success is a good thing. But, alone, it can only do so much for you. If the happiest and healthiest people in the world are driven by purpose, not just success, we should try to apply that more in our own lives. Identify the things in life that give you purpose, whatever they may be. Make time for those things. In class, pay attention to the things that move you, the things that set your soul on fire. While you need not base a career on your passions, you should be intentional to pursue them. Shift your aim from success to significance.

3. Downshift.

    • Stress is linked to chronic illness. It is only fitting that the healthiest populations throughout the world make time for rest and have daily habits to reduce stress. Buettner was fascinated by their different ways to downshift. He observed that Okinawans spend time reflecting on their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take naps, and Sardinians do happy hours. 
    • Apply: Prioritize rest. Do things that give you a break from the chaotic, stressful life as a student. Begin your mornings with journaling. Sit on the beautiful Wilson lawn in between classes and romanticize your life. Start incorporating 5-minute meditations. Join an intramural sports team. Go with friends to get a boba from Tea Hill or a legal drink from He’s Not. Above all else, prioritize sleep. It is vital to our functioning yet the first thing to go for students on a busy schedule. Adopt a sleep schedule ensuring at least seven hours of rest a night, and then do everything in your power to stick to it!

4. Belong Somewhere. 

    • Tight-knit social groups are embedded in the culture of each Blue Zone. Having a sense of community and belonging is tied to the health and happiness of people. Of the 263 centenarians interviewed by Buettner, 98 percent belonged to a faith-based community (denomination did not seem important). This beautifully illustrates the connection between community and longevity. 
    • Apply: On a campus with almost 30,000 students, loneliness is a real and isolating experience. This juxtaposition of being surrounded by so many people yet feeling so unknown is understandably difficult for students to navigate. If you are feeling this way, know you are not alone. Fortunately, there are countless ways to get connected with other students in the Carolina family. Heel Life is an incredible resource for learning about upcoming student events and organizations. Take advantage of the opportunities for community throughout campus. Join groups that inspire your interests and challenge your growth. 

We like to over complicate things, especially when it comes to health and happiness, but the Blue Zones teach us the power of simplicity. Across the world, they demonstrate the consistent life found in purpose, community, movement, and rest. By applying just a few of the many lessons provided by the Blue Zones, we can cultivate a happier and healthier campus allowing for a more fulfilling student experience. 

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3 replies on “Making UNC a Blue Zone – And I’m Not Talking about the One in Kenan Stadium”

This is a great article and I love the suggestions on how to apply the principles. Well done!

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