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Eat to Live Longer: Nutrition Secrets of Okinawa

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5 Secrets to a Longer Life

Get to Sleep Earlier

A 2002 study published in the journal Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences revealed that Okinawan elders suffer very few sleep problems compared with Japanese living in urban areas. Okinawans tended to go to bed earlier, leading researchers to conclude that staying up late and then waking too early could be hazardous to physical and mental health.

Occasionally burning the midnight oil isn't going to cut your life short, but you might consider what you could be giving up. Studies show that lack of sleep can lead to overeating, reduced cognitive function, and even depression. Developing a nightly wind-down may help you get into bed earlier and relax faster. Turn off the television and treat yourself to a relaxing bedtime ritual that allows you to focus on drifting into dreamland. If daytime worries keep your mind racing, try meditation, write in a journal or read a book. Okinawans also take short naps throughout the day. How much sleep you need is personal, but if you're struggling to wake each morning, rest assured: You need more.

Cultivate a Sense of Control

Okinawan elders often refer to themselves as being gujah, or having a strong-willed character. "Centenarians tend to be very dominant, to want to have their way," explains Leonard W. Poon, director of the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Georgia in Athens. Having a strong will means doing everything in your power to achieve what you want. To do that, you must hold yourself accountable for your own success and failure. In other words, whatever your goal, whether it's to lose weight or love your job or raise productive, accomplished, sensitive children, go after that goal with the full knowledge that you (and no one else) are responsible for reaching it. Such determination will help you succeed.

Nurture a Sense of Community

Healthy centenarians the world over are usually very socially involved, says Poon. "They go to church and senior centers more often. Although they sometimes live independently, it's within a strong community." Ironically, many centenarians outlive their children, so neighbors, friends and other acquaintances become extremely important.

Learn to Worry Less

Despite being gujah, older Okinawans are also highly adaptable, which gives them resilience when things don’t happen to go their way. “Challenges and setbacks can keep you cognitively aware and mentally strong,” says Poon. “They exercise your mind. But when you encounter a setback, resilience is your most important friend.” If you do suffer a defeat, focus less on what caused you to stumble and ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. Then use that knowledge to try again.

Embrace Spirituality

Spirituality also plays a major role in Okinawa, and may explain why centenarians are better than most at letting go of daily problems. "Religion and faith in general are often what keeps many centenarians feeling balanced and protected from life's troubles," says Martin. If you don't subscribe to a particular faith, seek out other group activities with like-minded people -- a membership in a local theater club or lecture series, for instance.

Originally published in Fitness magazine, April 2006.


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