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Lindsay Doak: For inspiration, look to the world’s ‘Blue Zones’

At the start of the new year, many of us are beginning to think about abandoning unwanted habits in favor of those they’d like to incorporate. For most, the usual suspects pop into mind: losing weight, exercising more, quitting smoking. The list goes on, but most are aimed at the same idea — getting healthy. Turn on the television, and you are bound to see promotions for equipment and products to help get you started.

While these are all good things to think about, good health isn’t just about our bodies. In fact, if you look at the world’s “Blue Zones” — a term author Dan Buettner uses to describe locations where community members live well beyond 100 — you’ll see that the key to longevity also appears to include tending to social, emotional, mental and spiritual wellness.

To get you started, we’re suggesting a few resolutions for 2013.

Spend more time with family and friends. The hustle and bustle of balancing work, family, friends, and other obligations can be overwhelming. But finding just a little time to spend with those you love that can provide a world of benefits.

Studies show that people who are close to their friends and families suffer lower rates of depression, suicide and stress. In Sardinia, one of the world’s four Blue Zones, residents focus on putting family first and regularly celebrating those in their closest social circles. So, take a cue from the Sardinians and carve away some time for family and friends in the new year.

Enjoy Life. This most basic element — enjoying life — has become one of the most difficult tasks for Americans to master. In this day and age, it’s just too easy to focus on “what’s wrong” and forget about “what’s right.” But that can be changed.

In another Blue Zone located on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, residents often find pleasure in the small things and don’t take anything for granted. You don’t have to live on a tropical island to appreciate what you have. Stop, look around and start recognizing the good all around you. If there’s one thing the recent events have taught us, it is that life is short. Enjoy it.

Help others. Volunteering is great and proven to have tremendous mental and physical health benefits. In volunteering, just a small commitment can make a big difference. The majority of residents in Loma Linda, Calif. — the only Blue Zone located in the United States — volunteer. This includes a 103 year-old resident who volunteers for not just one but seven different organizations. For 2013, focus on making just one small volunteer commitment. You’ll be surprised at what a difference it makes.

Be a part of your community. Being an active member of a community can add quality years to your life. The Okinawans, the last of the four Blue Zone communities, sum up their longevity in two words: ikigai and moai. Ikigai means “that which makes one’s life worth living.” Moai means that one has a social support network. Having a community of friends is key to shedding stress and living long.

No matter what resolution you choose, the key to success is surrounding yourself with others who support your goals. If you are having troubles getting started or are looking for support, consider becoming involved in a community center, like the Hampshire Regional YMCA, that offers programs you, your family, and your friends (old and new) can participate in together. Here’s to a healthy, happy new year.

This column was written for the Hampshire County YMCA by board of directors member Lindsay Doak.

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