Last weekend I watched the Netflix series Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. Blue Zones refer to five areas around the globe where the local population has an unusually high percentage of citizens who live to be at least 100 or older. The series is narrated by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic explorer and fellow who has written several books about the phenomenon after interviewing centenarians and collecting health and demographic data from these Blue Zone communities. He has turned Blue Zones into a program that helps communities across North American shape their environments in ways to improve health and happiness.
Where are these Blue Zones?
- Barbagia area of Sardinia, Italy, which has the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
- Okinawa, Japan, where women over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, with the world’s lowest rate of middle-age mortality and the second highest concentration of male centenarians.
- Ikaria, Greece, also with remarkably low rate of middle-age mortality and dementia.
- The Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California, where life expectancy is 10 years longer than the rest of North America.
- Recently, Buettner named Singapore as the sixth Blue Zone. It reached this status not by preserving its centuries-old way of life, but by deliberate policy changes made over the last few decades. Those changes include expanding and improving pedestrian walkways and subsidizing healthy, unprocessed foods to make them more accessible, and tax breaks to families who live close to their elders. The result? Life expectancy in Singapore has jumped 20 years since 1960, and the number of centenarians has doubled just in the past 10 years.
Cycling across the globe
Between 1986 and 1992 Buettner and his brother pulled off three transcontinental cycling treks. The first stretched 15,536 miles from Alaska to Argentina. The second followed the 45th parallel through 12,888 miles of Europe, Asia and North America. And the third traversed the 11,885-mile spine of Africa from Tunisia to South Africa. Given his interest in studying longevity and riding his bike, it got me thinking what, if any, is the relationship between cycling and life expectancy?
Research on biking and longevity
There have been various studies over the years correlating cycling with different health benefits.
A 2017 study published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) looked at the association between active commuting to work by walking or cycling vs driving or public transportation and the incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and all causes of death. The study followed more than a quarter-million people in the United Kingdom over five years. The results? Those who relied mainly on walking to work showed a lower risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), and those who relied mainly on biking to work not only had a lower risk for CVD, but also for cancer and all causes of death. The study indicated there were also risk-lowering benefits for individuals who combined bike commuting with public transportation or driving, though they were not as great.
A similar study in New Zealand, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2020, found that among the 3.5 million surveyed for the study, only 3 percent rode their bike to work. But those bikers had a 13 percent reduction in early death rates compared to drivers.
I could cite other studies that indicate how cycling can help reduce stress, lower the likelihood of other chronic diseases, boost immunity, prevent cognitive decline and improve balance and coordination. But after watching Live to 100: The Blue Zones, I am more interested in how biking, whether it’s for practical reasons such as commuting or for fitness or for sheer recreation and pleasure, fits into several of the common denominators Buettner and his team found among Blue Zone centenarians. Here are my thoughts on the matter.
How Blue Zone principals fit into biking
Blue Zone oldsters don’t necessarily have gym memberships or train for marathons, and they are not consciously thinking about fitness. But they do have a lifestyle that mindlessly requires them to move around a lot. Some live in mountainous regions with few cars, so in order to go to the market or visit a friend, they have to walk up and down steep hills. Others tend their vegetable gardens, so they are digging and carrying things and walking around regularly. In some regions, sitting on the ground is common, so movement comes from getting on and off the floor multiple times a day. Swapping your bike for the car to get to work or go shopping or visit friends is a similar way to add natural movement to your day without overthinking it. Bike tours where you are riding, 40, 50, 60 miles a day are great for your health for sure, but so too is pedaling a few miles every day to run errands or get to work. Consistency is key.
Everyone, even Blue Zoners, needs a way to unwind, to let the stresses of day-to-day life evaporate. Stress is not bad if short-lived. But when it stays around too long, it leads to inflammation, which can worsen age-related maladies. Blue Zoners have a daily habit of curbing stress by enjoying happy hour with friends, praying, remembering their ancestors, or napping. Taking a short bike ride with a friend is a great way to cut loose. So too is cleaning or maintaining your bike, or reading a bike magazine in a hammock, or taking time out to dream about a bike vacation, or just hanging out with biking friends and sharing stories about your adventures.
All Blue Zone communities have traditions that organically nurture healthy habits and behaviors. Researchers know that both positive and negative behaviors are contagious, so why not gravitate toward social networks where the good stuff rubs off on you and others? Working at WomanTours, I frequently talk to women who made friends on a tour they took with us years ago, and those friendships are very much alive and well today. These women still visit each other, go on tours together and simply feed each other a lot of good vibes. And every time they go on tour, they widen and strengthen their friendship circles.
Another commonality among Blue Zoners is having a sense of purpose or personal goals that shapes their time. Richard Leider, an author who has written about purposeful aging, defines a healthy sense of purpose as a balance between serving others and savoring the joys and beauty of the world. In other words, the thing that makes you excited when you wake up in the morning is knowing that you will be involved with something that is both greater than yourself and provides a deep pleasure within yourself.
Bicycles can be a vehicle that transports people to many different paths to purpose. Some examples:
- My friend Mary Lee loves to bike. This year, she has been helping her niece learn how to ride a bike, something she never had the chance to do as a kid.
- Many of of the women who travel on our cross-country tours use the two-month trek as a fundraising event, raising much needed money for causes that are near and dear to their hearts, from breast cancer research to veterans affairs.
- For 10 years, a woman well-known in the Rochester, NY area, Theresa Bowman, led a community bicycling program called The Conkey Cruisers, which helped transform her inner city neighborhood from a place where bikers and joggers were looked at with suspicion to a place where kids and families regularly ride, jog and walk for recreation and pleasure. Bowman concluded the biking program last year due to health issues as well as decline in neighborhood safety.
- Finally, I will share something about WomanTours president Jackie Marchand. You may know her as the woman who runs the only women-only bike tour company in the country. But outside of her job, she serves as treasurer of Reconnect Rochester, an organization that works hard to build environmentally friendly transportation options by rail, by bus, by foot and by bike. And she practices what she preaches, walking or riding her bike to the office most days.
- Your purpose may or may not be related to biking, but regardless, enjoy the ride.
It’s important to note that the Blue Zones researchers and others have summarized the benefits of regular movement (such as casual cycling) as having a correlation with longevity. The relationship is not causal. Even so, common sense and personal experience tell me that even if cycling doesn’t directly add years to your life, it absolutely adds life to your years.