The Okinawans are a tribe in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, whose lifestyle of moderation and respect for nature and each other has been upheld as an example by many western cultures. They also have one of the longest life expectancies in the world. The Okinawans live in one of the five areas of the world known as “blue zones,” parts of the world with exceptional longevity. In fact, the average woman in Okinawa lives to be 86 while the average man makes it to 78 on average. The Okinawans also have one of the highest rates of centenarians, residents who are 100 years or older.
The Okinawans also have a long healthspan, the number of years they spend free of health problems that reduce their quality of life. For example, they have much lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity than the rest of Japan and the rest of the world. So, they live longer but also enjoy more disease-free years.
Although you might think that genetics handed them a gift, researchers believe lifestyle is the real explanation for why the Okinawans enjoy such good health and longevity. It’s easy to assume that people who live a long life are genetically blessed, yet studies show that genetics only explain around 20% of health outcomes while lifestyle is responsible for 80%. So, lifestyle habits matter.
Okinawans have a lot of healthy lifestyle habits that can really stack the odds in their favor for being healthy as they grow older. On the surface, Okinawan people are lean and healthier looking than most and they have vitality even at a ripe old age. What are the lifestyle habits that explain their health, vitality, and longevity?
The Okinawans Move More and Sit Less
Movement and maintaining a healthy body weight matter for health and longevity. Okinawan women remain lean throughout their lives. They don’t put on the extra weight that many people do during mid-life. One reason is they stay physically active and incorporate movement into their daily lives.
They’re not only more active in their daily life, but they make time for more structured workouts. Age is no limit either. It’s not unusual to see Okinawan women in their 80s and 90s doing a vigorous workout.
Their Diet is Simple and Unprocessed
What about dietary habits? The Okinawan approach to eating is based on their traditional way of life: healthy, organic diet rich in variety, lots of plant-based food, and they consume their offerings mindfully. They don’t rush through a meal with one hand on a fork and the other on the keyboard of a smartphone or tablet.
Not surprisingly, nutritionists and scientists have focused on the quality of the traditional Okinawan diet. It’s a healthy, low-calorie, high-nutrition diet. Typically, they eat soup with fish or vegetables for breakfast and some vegetables for lunch. In the afternoon, they often eat Okinawan soba (buckwheat) noodles. At night, they eat rice, vegetables, and fish together.
Another favorite food of the Okinawans is sweet potatoes, an abundant source of beta-carotene with anti-inflammatory activity. Plus, the Okinawans season their foods with the anti-inflammatory spice turmeric. They eat only about a quarter of the meat that people in Western countries do, preferring whole, plant-based meals.
They’re a Close-Knit Community
The social habits of the Okinawans contribute to their health too, but not as much attention has been focused on those. These include activities like morning exercises and neighborhood get-togethers, which all likely contribute to their culture’s impressive longevity rates. Studies show that staying engaged socially and avoiding loneliness contribute to health and longevity. Close friendships and engaging with others also help preserve brain health.
The Okinawans Live Close to Nature
The Okinawans spend more time outdoors in nature than people from other parts of the world. They enjoy gardening, which is the source of their healthy food, and soaking up sunlight. Unfortunately, this is less common in industrialized parts of the world where people spend more time indoors. It’s not surprising that rates of vitamin D deficiency are so high in industrialized countries.
Some of the favorite quotes of Okinawans are “eat what you grow” and “be one with nature.” Being close to nature has a calming effect that’s good for health. Plus, some trees release phytoncides that have a beneficial effect on the immune system.
They Have a Strong Purpose in Life
We’re happiest when we have a force that drives us, whether it be accomplishing a goal, helping others, or spending time with family. The Japanese call having a purpose “ikigai” and it gives them the will to live and flourish into old age.
What can other cultures learn from ikigai? Life is more meaningful if you have a strong purpose that drives you. As you might expect, the residents of Okinawa have low rates of depression and other mental illnesses, likely because of their strong social ties and the way they look for meaning and purpose in their lives. Such an approach is beneficial for mental and physical health.
The Bottom Line
You might not be ready to move to Okinawa, but there are a lot of healthy habits you can borrow from this long-living culture. Okinawa has been referred to as the island of longevity and now you know why. Incorporate some of these principles and lifestyle habits into your own life and you can benefit too.
- “Okinawan Longevity and Healthy Aging in Blue Zones.” 16 Apr. 2020, verywellhealth.com/the-okinawans-key-to-healthy-aging-2223603.
- Willcox DC, Scapagnini G, Willcox BJ. Healthy aging diets other than the Mediterranean: a focus on the Okinawan diet. Mech Ageing Dev. 2014 Mar-Apr;136-137:148-62. doi: 10.1016/j.mad.2014.01.002. Epub 2014 Jan 21. PMID: 24462788; PMCID: PMC5403516.
- Mishra BN. Secret of eternal youth; teaching from the centenarian hot spots (“blue zones”). Indian J Community Med. 2009;34(4):273-275. doi:10.4103/0970-0218.58380.