Although eating right and exercising is great for longevity in terms of mental and physical health, there is another often forgotten way to keep yourself feeling at your best, especially with age. A sense of belonging and purpose is essential to living a happy and fulfilling life, and this is why having strong community involvement and close relationships is so important.
You’re probably already more involved with your community than you think. Whether it be visiting a gym, going to dinner with friends, watching a movie with family or complimenting a stranger, these are all things that contribute to one’s sense of belonging.
If you haven’t heard of Blue Zones, you’re probably not alone. Blue Zones are areas in the world where people have been found to live the longest — and not just live, but live with happiness and contentment. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this phenomenon, but the main three commonalities of these areas are diet, exercise and purpose.
National Geographic Fellow, award-winning journalist and producer Dan Buettner explains on the Blue Zones website that community and family are the focal aspect of a centenarian’s (a person that lives beyond 100 years) life.
Many centenarians spend a lot of time and effort keeping their relationships with their families strong. This love and effort is often reciprocated in old age.
“Children are likely to keep their aging parents nearby and to consider them to be founts of wisdom that will favor their own survival,” Buettner states on the website.
Having a community, such as being a part of a religion or local organization, is also a common practice amongst the Blue Zones in the world. One study based on a sample of 5,449 middle-aged Americans from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found a significant link between religious affiliation and longevity, due to the sense of community.
The authors took into account socioeconomic factors, health insurance status and other health habits, such as alcohol consumption and eating preferences. The goal of this study was to investigate the link between attending religious ceremonies and long-term health.
The findings were very promising. Individuals who regularly attend a faith-based service live four to 14 years longer than their counterparts who do not.
Although having a community, whether it’s faith-based or through interpersonal relationships, is important ー it is equally important to consider who you are spending your time with. If you want to maintain healthy habits and relationships, it is necessary to surround yourself with people who also value those same habits. Harvard Health even notes the importance of fostering and keeping healthy relationships in one’s life.
“Healthy behaviors are contagious. Deleterious behaviors are also contagious,” Buettner says on the website. “The world’s longest-lived people curate social circles around themselves that support healthy behaviors.”
According to the University of Texas at Austin, there is some solid evidence that the types of relationships we have can lead to varying results on our longevity.
While taking part in a wide variety of activities with more distant social contacts (such as acquaintances) often requires going out and being more active, interactions with close family may be surrounded around sedentary activities.
Karen Fingerman, a professor of Human Development & Family Sciences at UT Austin, conducted a study that measures the link between physical activity as well as mood with both close social ties and weak social ties throughout the day.
Here are the three key findings from the study:
“Despite the clear benefits of physical activity, programs to motivate older adults to be more physically active often fail,” says Fingerman. “This research shows the importance of encouraging older people to engage in social events and social activities, which are more appealing than exercise programs for most people.”
Najia Jabbar, the director of events at Querencia, a local senior living community, emphasizes the importance of keeping the residents consistently engaged in fun activities.
“We try to have the community engage in some sort of involvement every day so they don’t sit around watching TV alone. No one wants to be lonely, and sometimes that’s hard to avoid as you get older,” Jabbar says.
Jabbar adds that COVID-19 had quite an impact on the residents, as they weren’t able to participate in as many activities and didn’t have a lot of visitors. From this experience, Jabbar says the pandemic taught them the importance of community and engagement.
“Now that we have come back to some sense of normalcy, we like to bring a lot of music and hands-on activity like arts and crafts, cooking and bingo. It has also been a big help having volunteers again.”
Yvonne F., a resident at Querencia, says she loves the community that she has found there.
“We have so many wonderful residents in our community, and I feel blessed to call them my friends,” she says. “Querencia is not only a great place to call home, but it also offers so many opportunities to get involved. I have no choice but to stay active!”
While it can be easy to get lost in the day-to-day happenings of one’s life, it’s important, and even vital, to be surrounded with loved ones, friends and a supportive community. Eating healthy and regular exercise are two healthy habits that can lead to longevity, but if we’ve learned anything from these Blue Zones, surrounding ourselves with a happy community is just as important.