This is the second article in our two-part series on self-care during recovery. The first article, Green Time, Blue Time, and Self-Care During Recovery: Part One focused on a special kind of green time called forest bathing. We discussed how forest bathing – i.e. spending time in nature – helps stress reduction. In a nutshell, forest bathing can reduce stress hormones. If you’re in recovery, you know decreased stress hormones means a decreased risk of relapse. That’s why we think you should get green time every day.
Now let’s talk about blue time, which is as powerful as green time, and can also act as an important part of your stress-reduction/relapse prevention plan.
What is Blue Time, Again?
Blue time is two things:
- Spending time near water: apply everything we said about forest bathing, but transfer the location to anywhere near a natural body of water
- Participating in lifestyle behaviors modeled after those practiced by people who live in Blue Zones.
We’ll focus on that second point: the lifestyle habits of people who live in Blue Zones. The general public first heard about these zones about ten years ago, when National Geographic published a book about the lifestyle habit of people who live long, healthy lives – longer and healthier than most of us. For reference, the average life expectancy of an adult in North America is around 78 years – but people who live in these zones live, on average, to be about 100 years old.
That begs a question. Two actually:
What are they doing?
How can it help you in recovery?
We’ll tell you.
First, the National Geographic team identified the seven areas in the world where people lived long and healthy lives: the Barbagia region in Sardinia, the island of Ikaria in Greece, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, a spiritual community in Loma Linda, California, and women on the island of Okinawa, Japan. Next, they identified any lifestyle elements people from these areas had in common. That’s when they found something interesting.
People in all these locations shared nine things in common, which author Dan Buettner labeled “The Power 9.”
Blue Time: The Power Nine, Adapted for Recovery
1. Natural Movement
The team who discovered blue zones learned that their residents don’t always work out in the way we think of working out and exercising. Instead, they stay active with things like walking, gardening, and doing active projects in the community or around the home.
- How this applies to recovery: We know exercise and working out isn’t for everyone. What this practice shows us is that as long as you’re active in some way, every day, you get the benefits of exercise while doing things you like, rather than dislike.
The residents of these areas have important, personal reasons to get out of bed every day. They do volunteer work, they spend time with children, they spend time with their grandchildren, or they have things to do with peers almost every day of the week.
- How this applies to recovery: If you’ve spent any time in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, you know acts of service can be a lifesaver. Helping others, giving back, and supporting peers are all good reasons to get up in the morning, and all have a powerful and positive effect on recovery and sobriety.
3. Stress Management
It starts with staying active and having a reason to be active, both of which we mention above. These are robust and effective methods for reducing stress.
- How this applies to recovery: It’s worth repeating that excess stress can lead to patterns of emotion, thought, and behavior that can lead to relapse. When you have solid stress reduction techniques built in to your daily life, you significantly reduce your risk of relapse.
4. Moderate Eating
Researchers learned to residents of blue zones don’t overeat. They eat until they’re full, then stop. The community in Japan follows an old tradition: eat until you’re 80% full, then stop. This also echoes an old Chinese adage: save a bite on your plate for old age.
- How this applies to recovery: It’s tempting to handle stress by overeating comfort food. We recommend eating what you need to feel full, then saving the rest for tomorrow. In addition, we advocate a mindful approach to eating. When you eat, don’t do anything else, like read or watch TV: simply enjoy the food until you’re full, then finish the meal. Eating while you’re doing something else can lead to overeating, because your focus is everywhere but your belly, and you can miss the first signs of feeling full.
5. Eat More Vegetables
People in blue zones eat less meat, plenty of veggies, and more beans than people in the rest of the world.
- How this applies to recovery: This is just plain good advice. Yes, meat is delicious – but you don’t have to eat from the top of the food chain every day,
6. Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Here’s the one practice common to people in blue zones you should not adopt. If you’re in recovery from addiction, no amount of alcohol is safe or sane.
- How this applies to recovery: Misconceptions about the safety of alcohol notwithstanding, the people in blue zones recognize the detrimental effects of excess alcohol consumption
7. Faith and a Higher Power
Most people who live in these zones have an active spiritual life. The denomination or tradition doesn’t matter. What matters, according to them, is some form of belief in something beyond themselves.
- How this applies to recovery: Many people in recovery find faith in a higher power an essential component of their recovery journey. While you don’t have to be religious in a formal sense to participate, the recognition of a higher power is a foundational element of both AA an NA – and it helps many people in recovery make it through the tough days when stress is high and there’s a real risk of relapse.
8. Love and Family
Living with and around people they love is an important part of life in blue zones. Love can come from biological family or chosen family, e.g. peers or friends. What matters, according to blue zone residents, is that you give and receive love freely on a daily basis.
- How this applies to recovery: It may sound trite to say that love makes the world go ‘round, but we’re not wrong. Feeling loved, expressing love, receiving acts of love, and performing acts of love are all healthy, restorative, and an important part of learning how to navigate a health, fulfilling life.
Social events and shared activities are a big part of life in blue zones. Residents laugh, talk, and spend time together either in leisure activities or volunteer activities. They jump excuses they can to socialize and be around others: from playing cards to going fishing to dancing or playing music, they learn to enjoy the company of others in as many ways as they can.
- How this applies to recovery: People in blue zones don’t live in isolation. If you’re in recovery, you shouldn’t either. We know that isolation was a significant challenge during the coronavirus pandemic, and we also know that the community offered by phone and video chats and community support meetings helped save lives and keep people sober. Now that it’s safer to spend time in congregate settings, we recommend you take this one to heart: spend as much time doing sober-friendly activities with other sober people as you can.
Create Your Own Blue Zone
When we read about these zones, we were amazed. Except for the fact that blue zone advocates believe moderate alcohol consumption improves health – a debunked notion – we thought we were reading about communities designed for recovery.
Think about it.
Life in blue zones is characterized by an active lifestyle, a purpose-driven mindset, healthy eating, faith in a higher power (optional), a service mindset, love and acceptance, and an emphasis on community.
Each of those components, on their own, support a recovery lifestyle. Taken together, they represent a pragmatic approach to health, wellness, and longevity that just happens to dovetail perfectly with a sober lifestyle (except for the moderate drinking part, of course).
What we realized about blue zones is that they’re more about intention than geography. It helps to live in a moderate climate where you can spend time outdoors most of the year, sure. But nice weather is not required. It’s more about daily habits that support overall health than anything else – and if you’re in recovery, you know all about that.
If you know NA or AA meetings first thing every morning get you in the right mindset to take on the day, then you go to your meetings. If you know working out after a long day at the office or job gets you in the right mindset to go home and take care of personal or family responsibilities, then you go work out every day.
You can do the same thing with the Power 9.
If you read over that list and find something that resonates with you, please know that you don’t have to move to Greece or Italy or Costa Rica to make it happen. You can implement it in your daily life, starting right now.