Post written by Leo Babauta.
This article in the N.Y. Times about the superhealthy community on the little Greek island of Ikaria is enlightening.
Ikarians are living much older than most other Westerners, and are healthy, active, purposeful and happy well into old age. What’s their secret? Is it diet, or exercise, or no smoking, or a little bit of red wine?
Sure, it’s a bit of those things, but more importantly, it’s the community.
Ikarians live in a community where it is the norm to eat mostly plant foods (beans, potatoes, veggies from the garden), drink some wine with neighbors, walk everywhere, garden during the day, take naps in the afternoon, not stress about time, wake naturally, socialize with the community every day.
In the U.S., we often live in communities where it is the norm to drive everywhere, sit most of the day, eat fast food or at chain restaurants or convenience foods, eat lots of meat and fried foods and dairy, be isolated, be inactive, hurry up and stress out about time.
The problem isn’t so much forming individual healthy habits, but forming a community that fosters healthy habits.
This bears out when you look at other communities that are healthy, even well into old age: the Okinawans, the Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California, the Sardinians, and so on. They all have communities that foster healthy habits.
So what can we do if we’re in the wrong kind of community? Create a superhealth community.
Let’s look at our options.
Outline of a Superhealth Community
There isn’t one single definition of what a “Superhealth” Community would entail — if you look at the examples above, there are all slightly different kinds of habits that people in these communities have. But here are some of what seem to be important:
- Interact daily. Socializing is an important function in community, whether that be visiting neighbors, meeting in a marketplace, going to church, or talking in some way.
- Walk or exercise. Most of the communities mentioned above feature daily walking — sometimes a daily walk for exercise and socializing, other times just to get around to the store or neighbors’ houses.
- Eat plants. While not all communities mentioned above are vegetarian, plants make up the huge majority of their calories. Cow’s milk doesn’t, and meat is usually a small part of their meal. Okinawans (traditionally) eat soy and purple sweet potatoes and lots of veggies and a little fish, Sardinians eat beans and potatoes and veggies and goat’s cheese. Lots and lots of vegetables and fruits are good. Read about forming a plant-based diet.
- Eat in moderation. All of the communities mentioned eat in moderation. The American standard, however, is to super-size and pile plates high. Moderation is a good thing.
- Garden. It seems like almost everyone in these communities has a garden, and they garden daily. This is one area I haven’t included in my life yet.
- Wine. Actually, I think the Okinawans drink a nasty tasting home-brewed alcohol, but the Ikarians drink wine, so I’ll choose their method. They do it in moderation, and socially.
- Tea. There are lots of good things in tea, and drinking it in the late afternoon is a good ritual, also socially if possible.
- Purpose. Have a reason to get up in the morning. In the U.S., the retired (or unemployed) often don’t have this purpose, and don’t feel they have anything useful to do each day. The community should integrate them and draw upon their knowledge and experience — the elderly are great teachers and can be very active into old age.
You might also include attitudes about time, taking naps, waking naturally, and having a positive outlook on life. But I think the seven things outlined above would be a good start.
Now let’s look at some of our options if we live in a modern society.
Option 1: Friends & Family Community
If you friends and family aren’t that healthy yet, start talking to them about doing a monthly challenge, where you adopt one of the healthy habits above. See how many of them you can get on board — it might only be one or two at first, but two people is all that’s needed to form a community. Others might be inspired to join you in later months when they see the healthy changes you’ve made.
So for the first month, simply form the habit of walking. The next month, aim to eat more plants and less meat and dairy. The third month, simply get together and drink tea on a regular basis. And so on.
Get together on a regular basis — daily if that’s possible, but at least a couple times a week. And if you can’t get together daily, talk on the phone, on Facebook, or via email on a daily basis. This regular contact helps you get support from each other, keep each other accountable, forms a bond of doing something together.
Option 2: Find Like-Minded Friends
If you don’t have friends or family who can join you in a Superhealth Community, find some new friends. I’ve found good ones online who are in my area, and also by joining a running club. You can go to vegan meet-ups, or join a fitness bootcamp class or yoga class, and meet people there.
Even if you can just find one like-minded friend, that’s a good start. Then ask your new friend to join you in the monthly challenges outlined in the first option above.
Option 3: Create or Join an Online Community
If you can’t find people near you, then find them online. Today there’s no excuse for not being able to find people interested in what you’re interested in — they exist in troves online.
Don’t know where to start? How about Facebook friends, or Facebook groups? Or go to large healthy blogs and join the commenting community. Or find online forums that are about the topics you’re interested in changing.
If you can find a few online friends, start your own group. There are a few dozen ways, at least, to form an online group that talks on a regular basis, that can support each other in healthy changes.
Option 4: Change Your Neighborhood
This is the hardest option, because it involves changing a large group of people who don’t talk to each other often (probably), and who might not want to change. That’s OK — don’t focus on that part.
You can start by creating something new, or joining something already there:
- A community garden
- A group that walks every morning or afternoon
- A gardening class
- A running club
- A vegan meet-up
- Get-togethers featuring tea or wine and plant foods
- Community projects where people work together with purpose
- Classes taught by the elderly
Those are just a few ideas. You don’t have to get everyone to change — but you can start the change by leading by example.
A Superhealth Community might sound difficult, but really it’s not. It’s getting together (in real life or online) with at least one other person, and supporting each other in a healthy lifestyle. After you have one other person, maybe later you’ll have two. Then you’ll have changed the world.
The Simple Fitness Habit
Speaking of creating a superhealthy environment: I’ve created a new program called The Simple Fitness Habit.
I’ve gotten together with a group of health & fitness experts to create this program that focuses not only on a diet & exercise program to follow, but how to create the habit. It’s the component that’s missing from almost every fitness progam: they don’t tell you how to form the habits to get the changes you want.
You can check it out here: The Simple Fitness Habit page