Drive east from Los Angeles for about an hour and you'll arrive at the sunny, palm-tree-dotted suburban town of Loma Linda, Spanish for "beautiful hill." 

From the freeway, the city of 25,000 looks much like any other LA suburb. Strip malls, fast-food joints, gas stations, and a big, shiny hospital.

But the way people live here is different.

It's 9 a.m. on a Thursday when I arrive, and driving up the hillside I see the gym's parking lot is packed. Inside, it's buzzing with seniors.

Pastor Bantique performs chair aerobics at the Drayson Center.
Pastor Bantique, 74, performing chair aerobics at the Drayson Center.
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A group of about 25 people is standing in a circle practicing balance and stability — many are over 70 (or even 80) years old, but none bat an eye at any of the one-legged, one-armed moves that their trainer takes them through.

"Don't shoot your neighbor!" another instructor says with a smile. She is teaching rockin' chair aerobics, which involves resistance bands. I'm impressed (and relieved I'm not participating) when they pick up their bouncy balls and start clapping to the music while throwing the balls into mid-air.

Their skill is astounding, but perhaps not surprising.

Aerobics classes at the Drayson Center.
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These people are famous for being fit. Their hometown is one of the world's five Blue Zones, where residents appear to live especially long, healthy lives. For decades, people have marveled at how they do it — including in a recent Netflix documentary. Have they unlocked some precious secret to longevity?

We're about an hour away from Disneyland, and this place feels like its own kind of dream world, with the sun shining over the brand-new blue pickleball courts and a glittering swimming pool, ready for aqua aerobics. No one is shouting out commands at people to push their bodies as hard or as fast as possible at the gym. The atmosphere is easygoing, supportive, and social. Roughly 1,600 locals will gladly pass through here today, taking classes and connecting with one another.

Standing in the warm sunshine, I find myself thinking: Wait. That's it? If this is the formula for staving off the declines that so often come with old age, it's stunningly simple. It's tempting to wonder whether this whole Blue Zone longevity concept is kind of, well, BS.

Seniors in a water aerobics class at Drayson Center at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California.
Water aerobics class in Loma Linda.
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An Australian woman, in town visiting family, puts my thought into words. Surely nothing they're doing here is that spectacular, she said.

Can it really be true, she asked me, that these suburbanites living in one of the most polluted regions of the country regularly outlive other Americans by about 10 years or so?

Tom Farley on his way up to the water slide in Loma Linda, California.
Tom Farley on his way up to the water slide in Loma Linda, California.
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She is among the critics who believe that the mystery of Blue Zones is probably just a result of poor record-keeping, or other data problems.

But Loma Lindans contend that their longevity "secrets" are both real and plain to see — and that their daily, incremental investments in healthy aging are available to anyone who'll take a few moments to observe the lifestyle.

Loma Linda is a religious, health-focused oasis

View of Drayson Center at Loma Linda University at twilight.
The Drayson Center.
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The city of Loma Linda, first established as a health resort in the late 1800s, makes it easy for people to age well by design. And religion plays a huge role in that. 

One in every four people you meet in Loma Linda is a Seventh-Day Adventist Christian, according to the church. If you include the surrounding suburbs, there are around 21,000 practicing Adventists in this region. Some even worship at a former country club that was converted into a church, to keep up with the demand.  

Their faith guides their daily diet and exercise choices. Adventists contend that God was the original plant-based diet advocate — He wanted people to eat things that dropped out of trees and sprouted from the Earth. Shunning toxins, while promoting healthy foods and community activities, is part of the fabric of life here. There's no smoking or vaping allowed much anywhere (even outdoors) and there are no liquor stores or bars either. 

Mary and Lee Reynolds standing on grass while surrounded by plants.
Mary Reynolds, 73, and her husband Lee, 81, adhere to a vegan diet. They got married four years ago and run 5 1/2 miles together every Sunday.
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Adventists do not eat fast food; it wasn't until 2013 that McDonald's showed up, after years of fierce opposition from the residents. Instead, they follow a kind of Garden of Eden strategy that is rooted in their faith, with fresh vegetables, beans, fruit, and nuts at the core of their diet. When Adventists come together for a meal, there are colorful haystacks to eat, which are essentially deconstructed taco salads, beds of corn chips layered with beans and fresh vegetables on top.

Some of the rules and rituals Adventists adhere to are intense. (Strict Adventists don't even eat mustard or pepper, shunning any sort of potential stimulant. Traditionally, caffeine is also a no-no.) But most Adventists I met in Loma Linda were a bit more flexible with their religious edicts, while still recognizing that the key principles of their faith can help them live more humbly, and more healthfully too.

Retired nurse Mary Reynolds, a vegan Adventist, says the fresh produce section of the grocery store is unequivocally "the best part." Reynolds, who is 73, still mentors patients with heart disease, high cholesterol, and other chronic health issues, taking them on tours of the Loma Linda market, and teaching them her shopping tricks, including learning how to check food labels for red flags. 

"The fruits and veggies are the ones that don't have labels, and they are loaded with a lot of nutritional value and vitamins that are beneficial for health," she said. 

Instead of meat, there is a plethora of meat-free alternatives – a pride of the Adventists, who founded veggie patty juggernaut Morningstar Farms. I dropped by the market for lunch, winding through aisles of whole grains, beans, nuts, and produce, until I arrived at a hot bar serving jalapeƱo tofu and Thanksgiving "turkey" with a side of sweet potatoes, carrots, and Brussels sprouts — plenty of high-volume, fiber-filled foods to keep me full for hours on end. Chef "grumpy" gauging my skepticism at the fake bird he'd prepared, told me his vegetarian take on the traditional holiday staple would "kick Tofurkey's butt." I took a bite. The fake turkey "meat" was, indeed, bursting with flavor, with a good dose of rosemary and other spices in the mix.

This is the part of life you hear about most when people talk about Loma Linda's longevity: The unprocessed vegetarian diet. It takes so much effort to eat this way elsewhere — you have to find the few scarce menu items without meat, pay extra for the "healthy" snacks like fruit and nuts instead of chips or soda, or diligently meal prep before you venture out into the wilds of our fast food nation. Institutional support makes it possible for busy Loma Lindans to accomplish their faith-based longevity diet strategy day after day without giving it much thought at all.

"They've made it something which is practical," Gary Fraser, a local cardiologist, told me. Fraser has been studying exactly how and why his fellow Adventists fare so well, by conducting National Institutes of Health-funded studies. Fraser said the Adventist diet is crucial for reducing rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cognitive decline in the community. In one oft-cited 2001 study that Fraser conducted, vegetarian Adventist men lived 10 extra years beyond other Californians. For women, the same advantage was an additional six years. 

But diet can't be everything. Millions of people around the world are vegetarians and they don't all outlive meat-eaters like this.

Alongside the healthy cuisine comes regular exercise, plus a day of rest, song, potlucks, and prayer each Saturday, or "Sabbath." 

A shared sense of purpose

Sabbath service at Loma Linda University Church.
Sabbath service at Loma Linda University Church.
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"We come before you to slow down," Pastor Filip Milosavljevic at the Loma Linda University Church said, addressing Jesus in a recent Saturday morning sermon. Looking out at the full crowd in the dark hall, packed with babies, teens, parents and grandparents, Milosavljevic encouraged his 6,000-strong congregation, gathered both in-person and online, to think about how our daily habits end up shaping who we become, and color the way we interact with the people around us. 

He, too, struggles to put down his phone while in line at the grocery store, or avoid grabbing it first thing in the morning when he wakes up, he admitted to the congregation. When friends are heading out for fast food, he doesn't always want to go home and eat beans again.

"Jesus, speak into our lives this morning a word we desperately need to hear, soften our pride as we listen." 

Listen, they did. Loma Lindans believe in the power of their weekly reset; a day of rest every Saturday to pause and reflect. You won't find much of anything in Loma Linda open on Saturdays when Adventists worship. Some businesses start winding down on Friday, with reduced hours in the afternoon. It's a sharp contrast to the American hustle-and-grind culture, which is ripe for burnout. 

"You look forward to getting up in the mornings," Lorie Purdey, a retired Adventist pastor told me — even if "not everything's perfect."

I got that sense in every conversation I had as I walked around Loma Linda. 

Lorie Purdey outside Loma Linda University church on the Sabbath.
Lorie Purdey outside Loma Linda University church on the Sabbath.
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There was Esther van den Hoven, an incredibly sharp 99-year-old living in a retirement home, who could describe details of her long and varied life in impressive detail — from birth in Germany to adulthood in Australia and the US. She isn't quite sure how she's managed to live this long, really. Her parents didn't live to extraordinarily old ages, so it's unlikely she has any unique genetic advantage, but she still seems to have very good mental and physical health as she nears 100. 

Ester van den Hoven, 99 and a lifelong Adventist, said trust in God "gives me peace."
Ester van den Hoven, a 99-year-old lifelong Adventist, said trust in God "gives me peace."
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"I've had a very good life. I mean, not financially wonderful, but very blessed and I'm happy," she said. "Of course, sometimes I think of my last days and then I'm not so happy. But I trust God for his leading. He has led me all these years, and he won't let me get lost now." That's what motivates her to stay active. She crochets every day, goes on 20-minute walks around the neighborhood, and spends time with the other three generations of her family, including five grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. 

There was also Dr. David Baylink, who, at 92 years old, still wakes up every weekday morning, mounts his "crotch rocket" style Kawasaki, and rides for 10 minutes over to the university hospital, where he conducts clinical research. Afterwards, he plays tennis.

Dr. David Baylink, 92, often drives his 5-mile commute to work on this motorcycle.
Dr. David Baylink, 92, often drives his 5-mile commute on this motorcycle.
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"People are asking me all the time why I'm not retired," Baylink said. "Not everybody needs a purpose, but a lot of people need a purpose — and I'm one of them."

Increasingly, research is showing that such a sense of purpose can help you live longer.

Like many Adventists, Baylink also makes time in his schedule for rest and hiking, enjoying the beauty of nature each weekend. He doesn't drink any caffeinewater, vegetables, and a little fish are what keep him going, he says. Baylink believes in a concept called hormesis, the idea that a little bit of stress can be good for the aging body, but too much stress is toxic.

"If you exercise moderately, why, you get stronger and more resilient. If you exercise too much, you actually worsen your condition," he explains.

The power of a team

Ernie Medina coaches pickleball in Loma Linda.
Ernesto "Ernie" Medina coaches pickleball at the Drayson Center.
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Of course, it's easy to carpe diem when the sun is shining every day. Here, conditions are always ripe for America's new favorite social pastime: pickleball

Thanks to some campaigning from local legend Bob "Mr. Pickleball" Mitchell, a local senior center's two faded tennis courts were swapped out for eight new, bright blue pickleball courts — which are now packed with players day and night. 

It's an accessible sport that is lighter on the body than tennis, making it perfect for the Adventist dedication to staying fit and being social. A large, long-term Danish study that was published in 2018 showed that team sports like pickleball, tennis, and soccer were linked to longer lifespans than solo endeavors like running and swimming — an extra boost that could, perhaps, be driven by the communal aspect of the games.

"What other sport can you find an 89-year-old sharing the court with someone decades younger than them?" Mitchell, 71, asked.

"Mr. Pickleball" Bob Mitchell (far right) organizes regular pickleball matches for seniors in the area around Loma Linda. Here, he's playing with (from left) J Mailen Kootsey, 84, John Testerman, 78, and Lucy Lett, 89.
Bob "Mr. Pickleball" Mitchell, far right, with Mailen Kootsey, 84; John Testerman, 78; and Lucy Lett, 89. Mitchell organizes regular pickleball matches for older people in the area around Loma Linda.
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On the courts, I meet a diverse group of people – many of whom are health professionals themselves, working at the local hospital the Adventists founded in the early 1900s. 

Mailen Kootsey, an 84-year-old retired physicist and human physiology expert, is one of the regulars on Mitchell's new courts. He told me he picked up pickleball about six years ago.

"I figured it was really better for me than tennis as I got a little older," Kootsey said. "As long as I can walk — even though I can't run very well — I go out and play. And if I can't hit the ball, I just say 'good shot,' and we move on."

For Kootsey, pickleball has been a nice way to stay connected with different people in his community. Alongside his wife of 62 years, Lynne, he also volunteers for about three hours a week at a local soup kitchen which feeds hot breakfast to unhoused people. 

Everything Kootsey is saying to me is textbook longevity stuff. This is what bowled over Dan Buettner in 2004, and still propels his Blue Zones empire. 

Buettner is constantly extolling the power of this multifaceted lifestyle — eating well, exercising, having purpose, being social, building strong relationships, and contributing to your community. It's almost like Kootsey was drawn from some kind of Blue Zone how-to manual. The specific, powerful, daily rituals and beliefs of this octogenarian are what simple record-keeping can't capture. It clearly works for him, and it could probably work for me too, if I could figure out how to implement it. 

J Mailen Kootsey sitting with his wife, Lynne, outdoors with palm trees nearby.
Mailen Kootsey with his wife, Lynne, at home.
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It would take years to make this formula work anywhere else

Driving back down the "beautiful" hill and out of town, I find myself smiling, glancing over at my bag of roasted almonds and container of date-rich energy hunks from the Loma Linda Market. 

I think back to my conversation at the gym, with the Australian woman who questioned what's really that different about this place. I came here a skeptic, prepared to find something to criticize, even just a little bit. But it's been two days, walking around, meeting people, and re-reading the scientific studies, and the only thing I've encountered is some serious confirmation. 

It's almost laughable how perfectly everyone fits the mold. Eat right, exercise, have faith, and seek your purpose. 

That's it? Yes, that actually is it, I think as I roll back into gridlock traffic on the California freeway. My knuckles tightly gripped around the steering wheel once again, my ankle straining from slamming on the brakes. I'm on my way back to LA, using the commute to mentally plan where I might quickly get a bite to eat before another work event.

If you don't live in a place that's set up like Loma Linda, it's deceptively hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle for even one day, let alone long-term. A lifestyle that can quietly, subtly, over time add up to several extra years of life enjoyment should be a community effort, not a solitary grind.

Can we follow this model elsewhere? I'm not so sure.

Fraser doesn't believe a Loma Lindan life extension program would be unattainable, or even particularly expensive, for the whole nation. Indeed, a new American Heart Association study suggests that people who abide by Loma Linda-style tenets about food, exercise, and stress can live an extra six years

But it would take some time to implement. If we wanted to confer these health benefits to all Americans, we'd need more neighborhoods that make walking, biking, hiking and connecting easier. We'd need healthy produce, grains, and nuts that aren't out of reach, instead of using processed foods as a default for busy schedules. We'd all have to embrace eating less meat, and enjoying plenty of savory, tasty, satiating meat-free dishes packed with nutrients and protein.

In short, we'd need simple systems that encourage eating, moving, and living for healthy aging, purpose, and connection; instead of having our schedules so packed we can't find time to move, people so stressed that chronic diseases come easier and earlier, and fast food that kills.

"I think Adventists have kind of an advantage because we believe in health," Ethlyn Obland said.
"I think Adventists have kind of an advantage because we believe in health," Ethlyn Obland said.
Stella Kalinina for Business Insider

It would take decades to set up the kinds of systems that would allow all of us to live like Ethlyn Obland, a 73-year-old retired nurse manager who I met as I toured around this city at the foot of the San Bernardino mountains. Obland, known by everyone here as "Obi," likes taking multi-mile walks up into the foothills with her dogs about three days a week. On the days she's not hiking, she's out enjoying regular pickleball matches with friends. And she shares a potluck dinner with a group of like-minded single women every Sabbath, featuring vegetarian fare including mushroom-walnut patties made with cottage cheese, and ginger carrots. 

"​​We're certainly not perfect examples of health, but we know the right principles," Obi told me. "Your body is your temple where you want the spirit of God to live and dwell within — You can't ask the spirit to come into your life if you're not living right."