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  • The Curious Traveler

The Blue Zone: Longevity Lessons from Sardinia

Almost ten times as many Sardinians make it to 100 when compared to American citizens. That statistic alone proves the people on this small Italian island are doing something very right, but it’s not even the whole story. The ratio includes an equal number of men and women, making the secret of the Sardinian lifespan even rarer. In 2004, Sardinia became the first-ever “Blue Zone”—a status reserved for regions with exceptional longevity.

No wonder we love our Italy hiking tours, then. You are what you eat, as the saying goes, so is there such a thing as a Blue Zone diet, Blue Zone foods, or even Blue Zone wine? What lifestyle cues can we take to improve our own health and wellness? Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: scientists have identified key genes associated with longevity in people with a Sardinian background. The answer is partly genetic, but fortunately for the rest of us that’s not the whole story. A classic Mediterranean diet, healthy cultural traditions, and even the local habit of hiking in Sardinia are also key factors. 

To celebrate our newly launched Sardinia Mountains & Coast hiking tour, we’re shining a spotlight on all the ways Sardinia’s landscape and culture promote a healthy lifestyle.

Aerial view of dramatic bluffs along the coast of Sardinia

 

 What is a Blue Zone?

 A Blue Zone is a region where people tend to have a longer than average lifespan. While the exact reasons are based on complex interactions between social, geographical, and genetic factors, obviously it’s worth unpacking the diets and daily habits of these populations to see what we can glean from their lifestyles.

The term comes from the researchers who used census data to identify the world’s longest-lived populations. They marked these regions on the map with blue checkmarks, and in the process discovered that Sardinia had so many it looked like a single mass of blue. The concept of Blue Zones was born soon after. A handful of others have since been located, but it’s Sardinia’s Blue Zone diet and habits we’ll focus on here.

 Where is Sardinia?

Sardinia is the Mediterranean Sea’s second-largest island, smaller only than Sicily.  If you picture Italy’s famous boot shape, then Sicily is the island it’s kicking. Sardinia lies further to the west, just south of the French island of Corsica.

The landscape is amazingly varied, characterized by a mountainous interior and white sand beaches along the coast. Costa Smeralda (the Emerald Coast) is the most famous coastal region, with its turquoise waters and vibrant beach towns. By contrast, the stunning La Maddalena National Park is home to isolated pink granite coves and diverse wildlife. There are also large stretches of uninhabited woodland and open plain—suffice to say you won’t run out of things to do in Sardinia, though we consider hiking tours the ideal way to experience it to its fullest.

Hands hold a bundle of asparagus

 

Sardinia’s Blue Zone Foods

Sardinian cuisine is similar to the Mediterranean diet, meaning it’s rich in whole grains, fruit and vegetables, and legumes. Healthy fats like olive oil take preference over saturated fats like butter; meat is consumed only in moderation or on special occasions.

Sardinians are fond of goat and sheep’s milk, both of which have anti-inflammatory properties thanks to the presence of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Naturally, wine is popular, but Sardinian culture prefers the “a glass with dinner” approach over binge drinking.  Sardinia doesn’t export very much of its bounty, meaning you’ll have to visit to experience the region’s unique vineyards.

In keeping with the theme, Sardinian wine also has unique health properties—there really is such as thing as Blue Zone wine. The Cannonau grape is renowned for containing approximately three times the concentration of flavonoids (compounds with antioxidant properties) compared to other red varietals. Flavonoids protect the body from toxins, help reduce inflammation, and may even lower the risk of major health issues including cancer. Cannonau wine’s flavor is equally appealing, often described as full bodied and fruit forward.

Scientific support for the Blue Zone diet and wine aside, Sardinian cuisine is just plain delicious. A common lunchtime meal, for instance, is flavorful minestrone with fava beans, chickpeas, and garden-fresh vegetables. Cheese is popular, with pecorino made from sheep’s milk being the most common (as you might expect, it pairs exceptionally well with Cannonau wine). Try the local specialty culurgiones, a stuffed pasta dish with an unusual but delicious filling of potato, pecorino cheese, and mint. The decorative handmade fold also means they’re often as beautiful as they are nourishing.

Overall, Sardinian culture values cooking highly. Simplicity and freshness trumps complexity in most recipes. People often source the ingredients from their own garden. This has the added benefit of getting Sardinians up and moving, and possibly even foraging from the countryside for plants like wild asparagus, which has a much more robust flavor than its North American cousin. All of which brings us to our next point…

A group of older men sit around an outdoor table

 

What is Sardinian culture like?

With that many centenarians walking around, it should come as no surprise that Sardinian culture respects and values the contributions of elders. Casual gatherings in the street or at a café are a daily occurrence, so there’s no shortage of opportunities to laugh and swap stories. At home, two or three generations might live under the same roof. That emphasis on strong, multigenerational family bonds helps reduce stress, with the ultimate effect of extending lifespans.

The interconnectedness isn’t just about blowing off a little steam, either. It also means seniors stay productive longer, enlisted as family gardeners, babysitters, chefs, and more. Those opportunities to make a meaningful contribution play a role in keeping older people vital for longer. It also means that values skew towards happiness rather than productivity—many Sardinians come home for lunch and take their time getting back to the office.

Where physical activity is concerned, Sardinians get plenty. Instead of bracketing out time for exercise, navigating the steep mountainous terrain means people pick up incidental exercise whenever they head out to the shop or to visit a neighbor. Walking has a much stronger hold in Sardinia than car culture. Shepherds are particularly lucky in this regard, walking an average of five miles daily without the joint-stressing need to squeeze in quick a cardio session. Visitors on a walking tour in Italy, of course, can leverage those very same benefits.

An ancient ruin atop a green hill, with hay bales in the midground

 

Things to do in Sardinia

There’s a lot more to admire about Sardinia than exceptionally robust seniors, Blue Zone foods and Blue Zone wine. We also appreciate the elegant Sardinian hotels, many of them just strolling distance from museums, galleries, and cafés. We love the climate, where the lovely weather in Sardinia means more time relaxing on some of Italy’s best beaches. We’re enthralled by the Nuraghe, mysterious ancient megaliths that predate Roman colonization.

Taken together, we consider this one of the best small group Europe walking tours—and if beautiful scenery and a long, fulfilling life sound good to you, we’re confident you will too.


 Learn more about the Italy: Sardinia’s Mountains & Coast Hiking tour here

Aerial view of Olbia, Sardinia, Italy, with with prominent terra cotta rooftops and blue ocean

 

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