Why the Guna Are Some of the World’s Healthiest People

Just off the coast of Panama lives an indigenous society which enjoys such exceptional health that it should be the envy of every “advanced” country on earth.

These remarkable people are known as the Guna, and have been harmoniously inhabiting the Panama region since before recorded history.

Cancer and cardiovascular disease—two leading causes of death in western societies—are rare in the Guna. Additionally, these gentle people don’t seem to experience the kind of age-related increases in blood pressure common in First World countries.

But how is it that a group of people, many of whom make a living selling coconuts and handicrafts to tourists, stay so healthy? In short: time in nature, a clean diet, and interactive music and dance.

Besides the low cost of living, a major reason to live in Panama is to soak up the relaxed pace of life in a tropical paradise. One such place is an unspoiled archipelago near the Gulf of Guna Yala called the San Blas Islands. This is a place of crystal-clear waters, coconut-laden trees, vibrant marine life, and warm, white sand. Up until 1925, these islands were closed to everyone except the Guna.

These days, the Guna do allow visitors, but only to a few select islands. The Guna still hold a strong belief that it is their explicit job to care for the natural world in which they live. They maintain a cohesive community, all of whom rely on each other to do their part in ensuring the health and survival of their friends and families. After all, their main food sources are fishing and farming.

Another way the Guna maintain excellent health is by regularly engaging in dance and collective music-making. The Guna play a type of instrument called gammu burwi, a type of panpipe, as well as rattles and other small percussion.

We can’t all give up our everyday lives to go live on Panama’s San Blas islands, unfortunately. However, there are lessons from the Guna which we can easily apply.

How Interactive Music Can Boost Everyday Health

In addition to improved social connection, music and dance also work to relieve stress as well as several other common mental health issues.

In a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, a group of researchers demonstrated the positive effects group music-making can have—especially on people with mental health challenges.

Thirty-nine participants—who identified as either actively receiving mental health services, providing care for mental health patients, or both—engaged in a 90-minute group drumming session once a week for six to 10 weeks.

Benefits come from participation, not perfection.

Upon conclusion of the study, the researchers found that, collectively, the participants experienced six overarching themes—all of which reflected improvements in emotional, psychological, and social facets of their health, including:

1. Hedonia: Self-gratifying feelings of joy, happiness, and fun in the moment.

2. Agency: Acting on free will and making free choices. A sense of control and initiative.

3. Accomplishment: Feelings of achievement, gratification, and triumph. Not giving up.

4. Engagement: Enhanced focus and concentration.

5. Redefinition of self: Increased self-awareness. Construction of a positive identity. Realization of personal capabilities.

6. Social wellbeing: A sense of belonging and meaningful connectedness to a group.

It’s important to note that the group consisted of various skill levels, including beginners. This allowed for an inclusive learning environment.

Interactive music and dance—even if you’re a beginner—can bring you closer to people, help express emotions, lift your mood, give purpose, and provide a sense of accomplishment.

Here are a few ideas to get you going with tapping into the health benefits associated with movement and rhythm:
• Search sites like Facebook, Google, or Meetup.com for local drum circles, then get out and go!
• Try a beginner’s dance class. Most gyms or health clubs offer a combination of exercise or dance classes, like Zumba. You can also find free lessons on YouTube.
• Listen and play along with rhythmic-based music.

As science is continuing to discover, many of the ancient ways used by people like the Guna in Panama offer some powerful science-backed benefits. No wonder they’re still being used centuries later. Like the Guna, remember to fill more of your life with healthy fresh food, time in nature, and regular social connection.

Remember, the health benefits come from participating in the activity, not the perfection of it. Let yourself make mistakes and just have fun!

Participating in music and dance is your birthright. It’s for everyone…and especially for you.

Jim Donovan, M.Ed., is a professional musician, and Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University. His TEDx talk, “How to Trick Your Brain Into Falling Asleep,” has been viewed over 4 million times. Jim was a founding member of the three-time platinum band Rusted Root, and now he shares the healing power of music through education and performance.

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