Can being happy, having a sense of purpose and living stress-free enable you to live a longer, healthier life?

These were some of the questions that came to mind as I watched the latest instalment of How Not To Get Cancer in which New Zealand surgeon Richard Babor explores what can be done to stem the disease.

Granted, there has been some controversy about the name of the series, with some describing it as being akin to clickbait, and others criticising it for creating the impression that people who have cancer have somehow “brought it upon themselves”.

However, I feel the series takes a holistic view about the things we can do to safeguard our health. The four parts focus on the food we eat; how we can mitigate risk by implementing lifestyle changes; how medicine and technology are being used to prevent cancer and how one’s environment impacts one’s health.

It is in the last episode that Babor visits Okinawa, the largest of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, where the life expectancy of its people is among the longest in the world. He wanted to learn more about their lifestyle and the food they eat, and to understand how these contributed to their longevity, happiness and overall health.

Research has shown that Okinawans have more people over 100 years old per 100 000 population than anywhere else in the world. They also have the lowest death rates from cancer, heart disease, and stroke. But they are not alone in living long, healthy lives. Their island is one of five regions in the world which are referred to as the Blue Zones - where people are living significantly longer.

The five zones are Sardinia in Italy; the Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California; Nicoya in Costa Rica; Icaria, an isolated Greek island and, of course, Okinawa.

The lifestyle of these people has been the subject of much debate and research which has identified some of the common lifestyle characteristics which contribute to their longevity. While there are some practices and characteristics which are unique to each region, there are six broader commonalities - which are a combination of what they eat and how they live.

The people who live in the Blue Zones, eat a largely plant-based diet and lots of legumes. You’ll find fewer smokers among them. When it comes to lifestyle, you’ll find an emphasis placed on family, social engagement and the integration of regular moderate physical activity in their everyday lives.

In these areas, people are socially active and engaged with their communities. They also have a sense of purpose and feel that they contribute to their community in a meaningful way.

Over the past two years I have been reading widely on what it takes to be truly healthy and two things are recurring topics whether I’ve been reading books on minimalism, mental well-being or physical health: having a sense of belonging and purpose, and finding balance.

These are not things you can buy or be gifted. They are things you need to seek and make space for in your life. And sometimes you may find that you’ll need to give your life a bit of a shake-up to ensure that they stick.

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