I remember tucking into another plate of ‘arroz y frijoles’, rice and beans, knowing it was to be lunch for the next few months. This was a staple meal while I was out in Costa Rica. One I grew accustomed to, as groups of us sat around talking and eating at tables or under canopies by the beach. Little did I know that this dish, and the way it was shared, was possibly one of the contributing factors to the longevity of so many Costa Ricans. In fact, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica (where I stayed for a portion of my time volunteering) has been identified as a ‘Blue Zone’. These are areas of the world where people live much longer than average.
Author, explorer, and longevity researcher, Dan Buettner shares The Secrets of the Blue Zones in a new Netflix documentary looking at why people living in these parts of the world are bucking the life expectancy trends. Taking these lessons, I realise we can apply them for our own work from home wellbeing. We can create our own ‘Blue Zone’ in our working lives so that we can live well and feel good while maintaining performance and productivity.
My experience of blue zones
I’ve had the good fortune to experience life near another ‘Blue Zone’ when I spent a year in Japan. The island of Okinawa, Japan, along with Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California, boasts the highest proportion of centenarians in the world.
In hindsight, my memories from Costa Rica are of lots of laughter, laid-back simplicity, a love of the world, and a respect for nature. ‘Pura Vida’ is a phrase used often meaning ‘pure life’. It is a way of life for the Ticos (Costa Ricans) which they use by way of a greeting, meaning ‘life’s good’.
In Japan, while not in Okinawa itself, I realised it is hard not to recognise the ageing population. There is such respect for their elders, an appreciation of their wisdom, and amongst them, there is still a vitality. It is not uncommon to see those in their seventies, eighties and beyond practicing tai chi in the parks. There is a serenity about them. They move, they are active, they live long but they live well.
There were no fad diets or quick-fix fitness plans. It was a lifestyle that inherently promoted health and longevity.
What can we learn from the Blue Zones?
Buettner identified many commonalities between the different ‘Blue Zones’. Each place had its own traditions and cultures but many of those revolved around eating certain foods, connecting with others, staying active and enjoying life.
They seem like obvious ingredients for a healthy and fulfilling life, but in the modern day world and our western society, with work and family demands, it never seems quite so simple to achieve.
While understanding the lifestyles in the blue zones, we can begin to see the elements we can adopt in our working lives.
From what and when we eat, to how we connect with people, how we move, where we work, and what we do for our job, we can start to create a WFH Blue Zone.
As Buettner says: “The calculus of ageing offers us two options: We can live a shorter life with more years of disability, or we can live the longest possible life with the fewest bad years. As my centenarian friends showed me, the choice is largely up to us.”
Find your purpose
In Costa Rica and Japan, there are sayings that in effect translate as ‘your purpose’. The Japanese have ‘ikigai’. In Costa Rica, it is, ‘plan de vida’. While we often strive to come up with a meaningful purpose in our life, these words simply remind them to get up, embrace the day, make the day count by doing something that has meaning.
In Japan this often has more relevance in their later years in retirement. Life does not stop after work ends. It is when they discover new passions and enjoy their time with intention and purpose.
If you want more on ikigai, check out the piece in Volume 4 of The Homeworker magazine. In volume 3, performance and wellbeing coach Brad Reed writes on the power of finding your purpose, and how it can improve your longterm success. He says: “People who have a strong sense of purpose know what it feels like. There is clarity, energy and meaning behind nearly everything they do. There is intrinsic confidence that life is working for them and not against them.”
We can all drill down into what our purpose is and ‘find our why’. We can all find meaning in our work. It may cause you to evaluate and think more deeply about the work you do. Equally, we simply need to have a plan for our day, a reason to get up, and a clarity over what we need to do.
It is a great foundation for a happier and more productive day.
Movement is medicine
In our typically sedentary, desk-bound lives, we know that we need to move more. We may do a workout first thing or after work, and at other times we move between the bed, desk, and sofa.
One of the common factors of people living in places such as Italy, Japan, and California was the exercise and movement they incorporated in their day. Often, this was not in the form of an intense workout. It was regular and integrated into their life.
It was walking instead of using the car or spending time in the garden. Even the action of sitting on the floor instead of collapsing into a soft armchair means Japanese people are regularly using muscles that get neglected at the desk or while watching TV.
To look after your work from home wellbeing, we can add movement by:
- Going out for a lunch time walk.
- Doing a little gardening during breaks.
- Stretching and squatting at least every hour to move your body.
- Incorporating exercise snacking while waiting for things like the kettle to boil or lunch to cook.
Also consider the ergonomics of your workspace. Can you incorporate a standing desk for a little more movement and variety?
Check out the information and movement suggestions with Pilates At Your Desk founder, Kerry-Anne Bradley in volume 1 of The Homeworker magazine.
Also watch our ten minute pilates video for some great stretches and moves after a day at the desk inside The Subscribers Lounge.
Get into the garden
Not only does gardening provide an opportunity for exercise and movement, it is also the perfect activity for your entire work from home wellbeing. In fact, gardening is a proven way of upping your levels of the mood-boosting hormone, Serotonin.
In Okinawa, gardening was highlighted as an important factor in the health and wellbeing of the older population and it is something we can easily fit into our working day at home.
Getting outside for a sport of weeding increases your exposure to essential vitamin D, something many of us are low in. If you look at the ‘Blue Zone’ lifestyles, many extol the virtues of a sensible amount of sunlight.
Gardening in your lunch break exposes you to what environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant, Lee Chambers describes as “the happy bacteria” – a harmless bacteria in the soil called mycobacterium vaccae. “When you get it under your fingernails, that’s a transition point where it passes into your blood stream,” says Chambers. “When people are exposed to that, the serotonin production increases in the gut due to that connection between the gut and the brain.”
Extra benefits come from the endorphin release from the physical workout and the reward of seeing the literal fruits of your labours. Speaking to The Homeworker, maverick psychologist Katie Woodland, described the positive benefits for her own mental health. After struggling with depression, she found gardening gave her the outlet she needed to switch off but remain productive. She also says you can keep topping up the feel-good factor with what she calls little “micro-jolts of serotonin” from surrounding yourself with nature and seeing the result of your gardening efforts.
Take time over your food
Unsurprisingly, food was a big factor in the longevity of people living in ‘Blue Zones’. Basic ideas seemed to be around consuming less dairy in the form of cow’s milk, eating only a light meal in the evening, and including plenty of nuts, vegetables and certain foods such as soy and a small glass of red wine.
One of the benefits of working from home for your wellbeing is the control you have over your food.
There is often a little more flexibility; you can make the most of your kitchen and spend more time preparing. Rather than rushing down a sandwich at the desk, try to take a proper break, allowing you to fully digest your meal, advises nutritionist, Katherine Caris-Harris inside volume 2 of The Homeworker magazine.
Speaking with Katerina Pavlakis, The Intuitive Cook, she writes in Volume 4 of The Homeworker magazine about the different flavours and layers you can add to your WFH lunch to keep it interesting without it taking up too much time.
You can also catch her webinar where she creates her ‘magic sauce’ here inside The Subscribers lounge.
Release the pressure valve
Business consultant Sarah Banks can be found open water swimming. Karen Connor creates beautiful mandala drawings, PR Rebecca Slater volunteers. These are just three of the ways people in The Homeworker community switch off from work and release any built-up tension. You can read more ideas on switching off in volume 4 of The Homeworker magazine.
This is a really important part of your work from home wellbeing as we know it can be harder to separate work and personal time when working remotely.
“Before you know it, work is absorbing all your precious free time and you never feel disconnected,” says clinical psychologist, Dr Stephanie Fitzgerald. As lower stress levels are crucial for longevity, and something identified in ‘Blue Zones’, trying to compartmentalise and avoid work creep at home, is a way of minimising our work-related stress.
Fitzgerald notes that from badly-worded emails to a tense video call or a lack of neighbouring colleague to vent to, we may find it hard to prevent work tension encroaching on our personal lives.
“Try to build some space into your working day to release the pressure valve, whether that is connecting with a colleague, or having a lunchtime catch up with a friend. If you have someone to share your experience with, who can offer some support or a different viewpoint, then this can clear your head and your free time. By building it into your working day, you can ensure that workplace stress stays where it belongs – in work.”
Enjoy your time
When we take a moment to appreciate what we have and where we are, we can start to reduce negative emotions such as resentment, frustration or even imposter syndrome.
Finding joy in our day is another way to lower stress levels and feel happier.
One way we can do this? Sing!
Singing is an instant mood-booster. Christina Carty, leader of the Vocallective choir in London spoke to us about the enormous benefits of singing – whether at home or as part of a choir (In issue 11 of The Homeworker).
A burst of your favourite song during a work break is an instant energiser, it warms up the vocal cords and it is a great warm up ahead of a meeting or presentation.
Being part of a choir after work is a wonderful way to form connections and feel part of something. The collective rise and fall of breathing in sync, and how you are fully absorbed in the moment, means it is a momentary escape from other stresses.
A gratitude practice can also be a very powerful way of combatting feels of comparison and maintaining a positive mindset, suggests author and life coach, Simon Alexander Ong, in volume 2 of The Homeworker magazine.
Notice what you enjoy about your work. Try to do more of the tasks that light you up.
In issue 9, The Joy issue of The Homeworker magazine, Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful points out that we can access moments of joy through aesthetics. Think about colours and shapes that make you feel happy and incorporate these in your workspace.
Finding ways to life your spirits throughout the day inevitably leads to lower stress and studies show it can improve immunity as well.
From family gatherings to community meetings, connection with others proved a frequent common thread for those living in ‘Blue Zones’.
When working from home, we need to be more proactive over making and maintaining connections. However, there is also opportunity to find friendships outside of work and within the local community.
As more of us start to work from local coffee shops and libraries, use local shops and amenities, we can start to strengthen bonds and connections with different people around us.
At work, we need to make sure we are regularly checking in with our remote team, scheduling one-to-one time with our managers and organising in-person meet-ups and events.
When we look to incorporate small but consistent changes, we will start to see the longer-term benefits. You can create a ‘Blue Zone’ lifestyle within your own daily working life.