Opinion: Finding Elements of the “Blue Zones” In CrossFit

September 27, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Kay Wiese
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For centuries, humans have sought the secret to a longer life. And while many have claimed to have the answer, few have actually been able to actually unlock the key. 

  • In 2021, just .027% of the US population was 100 years old (just under 90,000 people to be specific).

One big thing: While National Geographic Explorer Dan Buettner may not have the silver bullet or the magic pill we’ve all been searching for, in his new Netflix documentary, Live To 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, he explores some of the ideas that have allowed small pockets of people to live exceptionally long lives.

  • As a journalist heavily invested in the health and fitness industry, I of course knew I had to give it a watch to see what I might be missing in my life that could prevent me from living to 100.
  • While the limited series was both informative, thought-provoking, and at times heart-warming, what was perhaps most notable to me, were the numerous connections I found between the habits of those who lived in the Blue Zones and the CrossFit community I’ve been a part of for over a decade.

CrossFit might not be the panacea for the problems that plague us, there are certainly at least a few elements of the CrossFit experience that strongly imitate the habits of those in the Blue Zones who seem to have unlocked the secret to living long, fruitful lives.

1. Community Breeds Longevity 

While COVID certainly accelerated it, an epidemic of loneliness has long been a plague in the Western world that has had more impacts on longevity than people credit it for.

  • “Loneliness is as bad as a cigarette habit,” said Buettner in an interview with NPR.
  • “Now we’re discovering in America that loneliness can cost 15 years of life expectancy,” Buettner said during the first episode of his limited series.
  • But in Okinawa, Japan, the first of the “Blue Zones” Buettner visited, the citizens of this small island community have found a way to build and sustain strong communal friendships throughout their lives.
  • Parents place their young children into small groups of 4-5 people who are expected to continue with friendship and support throughout their lives.
  • These connections help the citizens not only to have a meaningful community to support them both emotionally and financially during difficult times but also to cure the ailment of loneliness.

While loneliness might be a chronic problem in the Western world, it seems that we have found somewhat of a solution within the four walls of a CrossFit gym.

  • Over the years, the CrossFit community has proven to be one of the strongest and tightest-knit communities of fitness enthusiasts out there.
  • Whether it’s raising money for a member going through a tough time or throwing a wedding for two members whose venue was canceled on them due to a hurricane, we see similar circles of community in our own world of functional fitness.
  • “The possible secret is it’s not just trying to muster the discipline or presence of mind, but it’s building the community around the activity,” said Buettner when discussing the citizens of Loma Linda, who use the community to encourage exercise amongst members of all ages.

2. Replace Chronic Stress with Solvable Problems 

In the second episode, Buettner explores the issue of chronic stress impacting the modern lifespan.

  • While stress can be good in certain scenarios, prolonged periods of stress can lead to massive deterioration on one’s health.
  • It doesn’t take more than a quick Google search to learn the impacts that chronic stress can have on the body.

But in Sardinia, the sheep herding citizens have found a way to channel and release that stress, or at least gain a better sense of control over it.

  • While chronic stress can wreak havoc on our bodies, controlled and solvable stress can actually be quite good and rewarding.
  • “The key to the difference between bad stress and good stress is its solvability,” said MD, PhD Mithu Storoni in an interview during the second episode of the mini-series.
  • “One of the ways in which stress is beneficial is if we overcome it by active coping,” she continued.
  • “Today in our urban world, through social media and news media, we are brought all the problems of the whole world. These are problems you cannot physically control,”
  • “But you can control how you treat your goat to make sure your flock is healthy,” Storoni continued, referencing the sheep farmers of Sardinia who seem to have a much better handle on their stress than the rest of the world.
  • This sense of active coping where you can resolve the problems you are given is a very important part of mental health, cognitive longevity, and stress resilience,” she concluded.

CrossFit gyms might not have a flock for its members to tend to, but they do offer something unique in the hours that athletes spend in class–a solvable problem.

  • While you might not be able to solve the constant barrage of problems you see running through your social media feed or on the news in the morning, you can solve the problem of the barbell in front of you.
  • You can actively work to push yourself through the problem of the workout and when that timer runs out or the last rep is complete, so too is the problem.
  • The CrossFit methodology gives us a positive outlet for not just problem-solving, but also stress relief in a world that seems to glorify the never-ending hustle and overworking oneself to burnout.

3. Movement Keeps Us Young:

You don’t need to do anything more than watch the 50+ divisions at the CrossFit Games to know that consistent movement keeps you young.

  • Buettner was also able to find this in the small island village of Okinawa, Japan, where constant movement has allowed its citizens to exceed the global average lifespan over and over again.
  • Citizens of Okinawa often continue to tend to gardens through their 80s and 90s forcing them to get up and down day after day, creating a daily pattern of movement.
  • Not only that but many of the Okinawan homes contain minimal furniture save a low table and a tatami mat.
  • This lack of furniture forces them to rise from the floor to standing multiple times per day, encouraging continuous movement.

You’ll find similar habits in CrossFit gyms. While the CrossFit Games features athletes in their athletic prime, the walls of your average affiliate contain athletes of all ages.

  • In 2023, the CrossFit Open drew over 2,500 men and women over the age of 65 to compete and many gyms draw members well into their 60s and 70s for regular CrossFit classes.

4. Purpose Fulfills Us

While the American dream might tell us to work and retire by the age of 60, the citizens of the Blue Zones know that life doesn’t have to end after retirement.

  • For these people, finding purpose is a critical element of longevity.
  • “When you know that somebody needs you and wants to be in your life, that gives you longevity. Something to live for,” said 75-year old Loida Medina of Loma Linda in an interview with Buettner during the second episode of the series.
  • In Okinawa, the citizens call it “ikigai,” which is a concept that means “your reason for being”
  • “They could sum up their life meaning, the reason they wake up in the morning,” said Buettner.

While it might not be a paying job, the CrossFit methodology can give us a sense of purpose and progression in our lives.

  • In the same way we might work for a new promotion at work or to earn a new degree, we can find a similar purpose in chasing a back squat PR or being able to do a muscle-up.
  • Much like the citizens of Okinawa might find purpose in continuing to tend to their gardens or running a small stall at their local market, we too can find a purpose in our fitness journey and how we choose to take care of our bodies.

The big picture: There might not be one answer to what creates longevity or a magic pill we can take to live to 100. However, we can certainly take from the lessons of those who have done it best. While it might not be possible to uproot our lives and move to Okinawa, Japan, or Sardinia, Italy, and change the trajectory of our entire lives, finding small and meaningful ways that we can incorporate the practices of these people might just be the key to living a longer and happier life.

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