There is little doubt that life is more stressful now than ever, with our work life balance not being as many of us would wish for and day to day pressures on the increase. The sobering reality of a stressful life is that of its premature end as a foregone conclusion, and the only way to prevent this irreversible damage is to make significant yet relatively simple tweaks to your lifestyle.
Long life and a stress-free existence tend to go hand in hand, with only 10% of our longevity being dictated by our genes, and 90% being directly attributed to our lifestyle. A study to find the world's longest living communities by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a division of the US National Institute of Health, found four key areas of the world where people lived longer low-stress lives, and discovered the key lifestyle factors that they all had in common.
Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, USA and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica were the places identified and studied. People in those places were found to live significantly longer on average than the general population of the rest of the world, with a higher than average number of those people reaching 100 years old; they also reported much lower levels of everyday stress.
Here are eight lifestyle elements that they all share - which are consistent with previous studies on the management of stress over a lifetime - that you can put into practice from today, to help rid your life of stress and maybe buy yourself a bit more time:
Natural activity, NOT exercise
Construct your life in such a way that you have to be active on a daily basis, and spend as much of this active time as you can close to nature. Take the dog through the park rather than walking round the streets, climb the stairs rather than taking the lift, walk to the shops instead of taking the car, get rid of that kitchen mixer and do it all by hand, and get out into the garden if you can. Exercise is of course good for us, but the results show that just being active is enough to keep the body healthy and contributes to that longer, stress-reduced life. If you do choose to exercise, make sure it's something you really love and in as natural an environment as is possible.
Recalibrate your outlook
Put the brakes on, slow down, even if for just a few minutes each day. Get out into nature for a walk, sit in silence for ten mins by the river, in the park or by the sea if you're lucky enough to live close by; meditate or pray each day. The key here is to allow yourself that 'switch-off' time on a regular basis.
Get a purpose for living
It might sound like another pressure to add to an already stressful life, but this one is actually very simple. It's about identifying the reason you get up in the morning, and it can be as simple as loving your family; you might also live for your rewarding job, or enjoy your winters because you're looking forward to the summer holidays. The simplicity of it means it can help you see the small things that are right in front of you, the things that make life worth living like a beautiful sunset, green meadows or the forest. The Japanese have a name for this, they call it 'Ikigai', or 'the reason for which you get up in the morning'.
Have a daily tipple
Yes, you read that correctly. A daily drink of wine, beer or something you enjoy is a key factor in a long and stress-free life. The inhabitants of the Sardinian town regularly drink a local wine that's high in flavonoids, just one or two small glasses. This isn't a ticket to drink excessively, as that is counterproductive, but small, regular amounts can contribute to your life's overall longevity.
A plant based diet
Lately the popular vegan diet has come under scrutiny, though its popularity shows no signs of waning. However, the research shows that using plant based foods as the foundation for your diet could make sizeable contributions to the length of your life. Those who enjoy meat and dairy don't need to cut it out, you simply need to limit how much you consume, and make it secondary rather than primary. In Okinawa, the residents also eat a significant amount of tofu, often hailed as the healthy meat or dairy alternative. Eating naturally will significantly reduce short and long term stress.
Stop eating before you feel full
We are refined machines, we really don't need to eat the amount of food that we often do. Simple small meals are a much better way for our bodies to gain their energy, and puts less pressure on our systems overall. Japanese people are famous for their smaller meals, and the residents of Okinawa are no exception. They use smaller plates so as not to over face themselves, and have a rule that they stop eating when they believe they're 80% full.
Put your loved ones first
How many times do we see families sat around in silence in public, faces buried in smartphones, only half conscious of each other? Or couples having a romantic meal, yet both sat checking their Instagram feeds? In those areas of the world with long living inhabitants, they all made more time that average for their families. So, the next time you're tempted to sit on the sofa and scroll through hundreds of other people's pictures and posts, put down the phone and play with your children, hug your partner or call your mum and dad. The same goes for working too many hours or having to travel a lot for work: cut it down and spend that time with your special people.
Belong to the right tribe
Surround yourself with the right people, with people who will look out for you, as well as you for them. Being around likeminded friendship groups can have a lasting and profound effect on your mental health, much like a support group but chosen by you. The importance of keeping in touch with old friends and making that required effort to meet up and stay in contact should not be underestimated, as some of the world's longest living people are still friends with those they've known since their childhood.