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Find the Secret to Long Life in Costa Rica

‘Blue zone’ is a term coined by Dan Buettner to represent the small regions of the world that have an unusually large percentage of their population who are over 100 years of age. Costa Rica is one of the nations that hosts a blue zone, found in the Nicoya Peninsula.

The Costa Ballena is not geographically near the Nicoya, however culturally and contextually, the two regions share much in common. As in Nicoya, the Costa Ballena is a historically agricultural region of Costa Rica and many of the families who live here have resided in this region for many generations. They drink hard water, eat light when not working, and keep their focus on their families and communities. They enjoy life and never need for anything.

In Buettner’s book, Blue Zones, Nicoya was featured as one of five areas around the world that have the largest populations of centenarians (people over 100 years of age). From his research, alongside National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging (US), we learn that this feat is largely due to four factors: proximity to family and friends, good diet, physical activity, and a spiritual lifestyle. This is the formula for longevity, although it changes shape depending on where you are. There is no one diet plan or best formula for exercise or spirituality. The important thing is the combination of these four factors, which are heavily embraced in the Costa Ballena.

Only one in 4000 people in America will live to 100 years. In the blue zones of the world, that percentage is much higher. These are places where the weather is good, the air and water is fresh and life is simple. We in the Costa Ballena may not all live to see 100, but we do have all of the keys to this remarkable way of life, as described below:

We move naturally

Costa Ricans don’t tend to exercise on purpose. Their lives are set up so that they are constantly nudged to physical activity. Modern conveniences like cars, supermarkets and packaged meals are not universal here, meaning that there are many “extra” steps that people here can take to do the most basic tasks like cooking meals or going to work. Of course, most expats have a car and can visit a supermarket, but there are also local markets and neighbors who share services that allow for less driving and more interaction with the land and the people.

Intentional physical activity is spent doing things that locals here enjoy, like walking (which is the only proven activity to stop cognitive decline) and gardening. Costa Rican cowboys are still an everyday sighting in our small communities and many prefer to do things the traditional ways as opposed to modernizing for the sake of convenience. What most of us expats find when we move here is that our modern ways of doing things may not be the best ways, and that sometimes, simplicity outweighs convenience when it comes to experience.

We have the right outlook

When we hurry or are stressed, we trigger an inflammatory response, which results in syndromes like Alzheimer’s or cardiovascular disease. When we slow down, even for 15 minutes, we change this response to an anti-inflammatory state. What most expats who move to the Costa Ballena find is that it’s easy to slow down here. There is very little traffic and the pace of life moves more slowly, meaning that either we adapt or we find ourselves not fitting in. You’d be surprised to find how easy it is to adapt, and how few people feel as though they just can’t deal with the relaxed pace.

It’s easy to relieve the heavy burden of stress when you are a part of something bigger. Throughout the world, the two most dangerous years of life are the year that we are born (because of infant mortality diseases) and the year we retire. Having a sense of purpose activated adds 7 years to your life on average. Costa Ricans, like all nations that host a blue zone, have a vocabulary for sense of purpose. Here, it is called a “plan de vida.” This translates to a strong sense of purpose; of feeling needed and wanting to contribute to a greater good. Costa Rica’s aged population still feel relevant in many communities and their family and friends are their support system. They have a positive outlook on life thanks to daily socializing with family and community.

We eat wisely

Centenarians who live in blue zones tend to drink a little bit every day. Most are on a predominantly plant based diet, eating meat that comes from the bush, and they stay away from all processed foods or those injected with hormones.

There is also a cultural strategy to keep people away from the table and over-eating. This is accomplished by having chores and tasks that are routinely done before and after every meal.

In Costa Rica, the ‘blue zone meal’ consists of rice and beans (called Gallo Pinto), served with tortillas. This is a meal that is full of carbs (traditionally a no-no in the first world) but it gives workers the strength to labour in the field. To make the home-made tortillas, the corn is traditionally processed with ash, lime, and other minerals, giving them more calcium and releasing the niacin from the corn, which is an important source of B-vitamins. Those who prepare food with longevity in mind tend to use organic foods and clean, hard water, which is full of minerals.

It is increasingly difficult to find the natural environments in which to cultivate food that has little to no exposure to agrochemicals. We are lucky in the Costa Ballena to still have much virgin land, and our water typically comes directly from the source, full of minerals.

We connect

Costa Rica has a family-oriented culture and loved ones come first. For the expats who move here, we are mostly looking to find our right tribe. Most Costa Ricans are born into an integrated society and the expats are looking to pro-actively surround themselves with the right people, who tend to be those who care about health, family, community and connection.

In Buettner’s studies, he found that living in a faith-based community is worth between four and fourteen extra years, if you attend a ritual service every week. At least 85% of Costa Ricans identify as belonging to a faith-based practice, showing that the tradition of spirituality is highly built into the family/societal structure. Expats feel the benefit of integrating into the communities that have a faith-based societal structure, learning new values for relationships, community networks, and for the land on which we live. We don’t need to accept the tenets of a faith to feel the benefits of being surrounded by the people who do.

On the whole, Costa Rica is home to a people who structure their lives to be filled with happy and productive movement, surrounded by the people and the communities that help them maintain a positive outlook. And as an expat who has benefitted from being around this outlook, I recommend to you that pura vida is not only about enjoying the moment, but creating the space and cultivating the life-force to continue having enjoyable moments for as long as we can.

 By Alex Swift