When Friday evening rolls around, Ernie Medina Jr. disconnects.
Since he was a kid in his hometown of Loma Linda, California, Medina put his textbooks away, turned off the TV, and participated in the Sabbath, singing alongside his community—and, for the next 24 hours, he connected with his neighbors.
On Saturday, Medina often attended another church service, volunteered with the community, or participated in an outdoor activity with five close-knit families and their children. The families mountain biked, enjoyed the beach, nature walked, or played games outdoors before enjoying a potluck-style dinner together and sundown worship.
“It gave us time to spend time with family and friends, both in a worship setting, as well as just for fun, recreation,” he tells Fortune. “It’s a huge stress management relief to be able to just say, ‘okay, I’m taking a break every week.’ It’s like a mini vacation every week.”
Medina’s lifestyle, and the prioritization of friends and family, is part of the fabric of his wider community—and is one reason why Loma Linda is America’s only blue zone, leading the nation in life expectancy. Social connectivity lays the framework for living healthier and longer, as loneliness puts older adults at risk for chronic health conditions.
How Loma Linda became America’s only blue zone
Dan Buettner, founder of the Blue Zones LLC and researcher of Loma Linda, calls the city a “longevity oasis,” in his 2008 book, The Blue Zones.
“Part of the human condition is stress, hurry and worry,” he tells Fortune. “[But in Loma, Linda] they have what they call a sanctuary in time, where for 24 hours they focus on their families.”
Situated in the sunny suburbs of San Bernardino, California, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, Loma Linda—which translates to “Beautiful Hill”— houses about 25,000 residents. The city’s strong health system has also been nationally ranked as top tier, categorized as “high performing” in 22 types of health care last year with more than 900 city residents working as physicians.
And as home to one of the globe’s largest populations of Seventh-day Adventists, many Loma Linda residents’ faith promotes healthy living. Adventists prioritize community and worship, along with lifestyle regiments like getting outside, exercising, eating plant-based meals, and managing stress. As a result, Loma Linda’s residents live up to 10 years longer than Americans on average, according to research on the blue zones.
Dr. Ellsworth Wareham, a Loma Linda resident who worked as a cardiothoracic surgeon until age 95, models this precise way of life. While working in health care, he also prioritized getting outside, mowing his lawn, and eating vegan, he shares in an interview posted to the Blue Zones’ official website. Wareham died at age 104, leaving a legacy of “an ebullient and active centenarian.” Many centenarians have also laid down generational roots and remain an integral part of the city’s history.
But Medina will be the first to admit that Loma Linda does not stand out for its sights.
“If you went through here and came here, you’d say ‘Oh, this is a blue zone?’ I mean, there’s nothing like super special about it,” he says, noting homes largely cover the city’s nearly eight square miles.
While other blue zone cities like Icaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy top the list and are known for their aesthetic, walkable landscapes and abundance of food in line with the Mediterranean diet, Loma Linda’s selection has less to do with the city itself.
The lifestyle habits of America’s blue zone residents
A study of 96,000 Adventists aged 30 to 112 from across the U.S. states and Canada helped explain how Loma Linda earned the blue zone stamp. About 50% of the Adventists studied adhere to a vegan or vegetarian diet. The people of Loma Linda largely follow the bible’s diet, Buettner says. Like in the Garden of Eden, they eat foods the Bible praises, like the “seed-bearing plant” from Genesis 1:29.
Lucky for them, diets rich in plant-based foods and whole foods like nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables are full of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals key to longevity.
The study found that nearly 99% of Adventists do not smoke, and about 6% drink alcohol. These lifestyle behaviors have been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and early death.
Adventists also prioritize exercise—many eager to get outside for a walk alongside others. And people are easily swayed to commit to behaviors those around them embody, research shows.
“When we’re doing all this healthy stuff, it’s not just so I can be successful in business or live a pain free life,” Medina says. “We have a bigger mission.”
Want to live the blue zone way? Act in response to your values
The good news? There’s not a secret elixir in Loma Linda that helps you live longer. There are ways to follow the lifestyle of Loma Linda residents without picking up and moving across the country.
“There’s no pill, or drug or surgery that can get you to change your lifestyle,” Medina says, who has also worked in public health in the Loma Linda medical system for over two decades.
Rather than expecting people to “muster inhuman will and discipline,” Buettner says people can create new habits by aligning them with their values. And thus, every habit change will coincide with an answer why. One person Medina worked with said he wanted to see his grandson grow up, so habit changes around family, diet, and exercise followed seamlessly.
Where to start? Buettner says invest in your relationships and the people who give you energy. Beyond longevity, long-standing research has shown that people nearing the end of life who reflect on their happiness attribute it mainly to the strength of their social connections—no matter where they live. It’s quality over quantity, so even having three connections helps.
Consider joining a sports league or book club to find someone who shares your interests.
America’s only blue zone city serves as a ring of hope that daily lifestyle habits can make people feel like they live in a blue zone. It’s the youngest blue zone city, shaped by the values of its residents.
“There are evidence-based ways to shape your social life, the way you set up your home, your work life, and your neighborhood surroundings that we know overtime will yield high life expectancy and higher life satisfaction,” Buettner says. “And because these aren’t marketed to us, they’re not top of mind.”