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Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
January 4, 2024 ·  5 min read

The Healthiest People in the World Don’t Go to the Gym

As the second month of quarantine is now well underway, gyms, fitness studios, and rec centers have remained closed. For millions of people who are concerned about their physical fitness, being unable to put in a few sessions at their local gym, spin studio, or yoga class every week has been a difficult adjustment.

Many people have made the transition to working out at home over the last couple of months, which has allowed them to maintain their level of fitness even while in quarantine. For thousands of former self-proclaimed “gym rats”, this has caused them to consider whether or not having a gym membership is entirely necessary.

It turns out, the science says no. This may come as a surprise for many, and perhaps a relief for some.

Look to the Blue Zones

There are five places in the world where the average life-expectancy is longer than the global average of 71.4 years. These areas, known as “Blue Zones”, are home to some of the oldest and healthiest people in the world.

These areas include Sardegna, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, California; and Ikaria, Greece [1].

Dan Buettner, a world-traveler, cyclist, and storyteller, wrote about these five blue zones in a best-selling National Geographic cover story entitled Who’s Best at Living Longest: The Secrets of Longevity.

What sets these people apart from the rest of the world? It’s not superior genetics or stronger willpower, nor is it that these people engage in grueling sessions at the gym every day. The residents of each of these areas’ longevity comes down to two factors: They consistently eat a healthy diet, and they move around at least every twenty minutes, every day [2].

Buettner argues that their largely plant-based diets, however, are only half the equation. Through his observations, he has realized that people in these areas have made healthy habits instinctual rituals of daily life, rather than chores that require discipline or willpower. They move consistently throughout the day, live with purpose, and have strong communities that provide them with connection and support.

“If you want to live longer and be healthier, don’t try to change your behaviors, because that never lasts for the long run,” he said. “Think about changing your environment.” [2]

This was proven effective in Albert Lea, Minnesota, where Buettner conducted his first “Blue Zones” project. In this experiment, the city added ten kilometers of sidewalks and bike lanes, and local businesses made it easier for residents to pick and eat healthy food.

The result? People started walking more, creating their own groups to go out with, and lost an average of 2.6 pounds per person. What’s more, smoking rates decreased by four percent during the first five years of the program. Some people, such as Albert Lea City Council Member Al Brooks, lost fifteen pounds [2].

Several other cities across the United States have now begun partnering with Buettner to use his “ecosystem approach” to health and longevity.

The Benefits of Adding Movement to Your Day

At the mention of the word “exercise”, many people envision slogging through painful miles on the treadmill, or grunting through hundreds of sit-ups and burpees, under the fluorescent lights of a gym. This, however, is not the only way to reap the health benefits of regular exercise.

It turns out, you can unlock a number of life-lengthening health benefits by simply going for a walk outside. Researchers with the American Cancer Society (ACS) have found that even low levels of walking can reduce their mortality rate.

Walking is associated with a lower risk of a number of health problems, including breast cancer, colon cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. While the ACS recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as a brisk walk, every week, or 75 minutes of high-intensity activity, they have found that even people who walk less than two hours per week had a lower risk of death compared with sedentary individuals [3].

Walking can also benefit your brain. In his book, The Real Happy Pill, Anders Hansen, a physician and psychiatry specialist, states that a daily walk can reduce your risk of dementia by as much as forty percent [4].

One hundred years ago, 90 percent of Americans had jobs that required physical activity and movement all day long. Today, that has flipped, and now 90 percent of us work sedentary, desk jobs.

While we can’t all go back to being farmers and physical laborers, we can add more movement into our day. One easy way to do this is to walk or bike to work. If that is not possible for you, consider using your lunch break to go for a brisk walk or try breaking it up throughout your day, taking a five-minute walk every hour. Even simply standing at your desk can help you be healthier [4].

Read: 6 Shocking Facts About Stress and 5 Secret Weapons to Manage it Better

Gyms Aren’t All Bad

Of course, this isn’t to say that there aren’t benefits to going to the gym. If you have more specific goals, such as muscle-building or athletic performance, a gym may be helpful or necessary to achieve them.

Gyms can also be a source of community for many people, especially if it offers group fitness classes. These can be fun and may be the kind of motivation you need to help you stick to a routine.

A gym can also provide a safe place to work out, especially if you live in an area with high amounts of smog or air pollution, or if you don’t have access to safe walking paths or trails in your community. If you live somewhere that often experiences inclement or harsh weather conditions, having an indoor space available is a good option when you want to move indoors.

Add Movement to Your Day

Regardless of whether you make going to the gym a regular part of your routine or not, incorporating activity and movement throughout your day can provide you with health benefits, no matter your fitness level.

If heavy weights or intense Crossfit sessions aren’t your thing, you can still be healthy and reap the benefits of regular physical activity. At the end of the day, our bodies were designed to move, and even low-intensity activity can play an important role in your health.

Keep Reading: How These Greek Islanders May be Avoiding Dementia