Lessons from Blue Zones

Lifestyle is the Wonder Drug for Longevity

I recently spoke at an event hosted by the Capitol Hill Village entitled Designed for Longevity. One of my co-presenters was Harriett Jameson, a Landscape Designer at Michael Vergason Landscape Architects. She shared stories of her time studying the impact of environments and longevity in Sardinia, Italy, a place with a reputation for both extended lifespan and vigor of its centenarians. She chronicled stories of these elders riding bikes and chopping wood and even Teresa Melledu, age 85, who walks up seven flights of stairs daily.

Sometimes, we think our longevity is closely linked to that of our parents and ancestors. This is not so. Researchers tell us only about 10% of how long we live is dictated by genes. The other 90% is dictated by our lifestyle. In this sense, lifestyle is the wonder drug for longevity. Harriett witnessed this in Sardinia as she saw how landscape design, including walking paths, access to garden space and linkages to others in the community, influenced daily behaviors and routines and positively impacted health and well-being.

What are Blue Zones?

Dan Buettner, founder of Blue Zones (see TED talk “How to Live to be 100+” and book Blue Zones), identifies Blue Zones as areas where people are living to age 100 at rates up to 10 times greater than in the United States, areas where life expectancy is an extra dozen years or so.  Dan teamed up with National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging to find geographic areas that stood out from others. In the end, they studied three areas: Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan and Loma Linda, California. Sardinia is remarkable in the way the society reveres its elders and models intergenerational activity. Okinawa stands out for its plant-based diet and portion control, sense of daily purpose and ability to maintain very close relationships with a cluster of friends for the duration of their lives. Loma Linda is noted for the importance of their faith (it’s a largely Seventh Day Adventist community), strong social network and connection to nature.

What can be Learned from Blue Zones?

The study of these Blue Zones has led to a number of observations that is informative to those living outside of these marked Blue Zones. Dan and his colleagues have narrowed the lifestyle commonalities across Blue Zones into nine areas, called the Power 9:

  1. Moderate, regular physical activity.
  2. Life purpose.
  3. Stress reduction.
  4. Moderate caloric intake.
  5. Plant-based diet.
  6. Moderate alcohol intake, especially wine.
  7. Engagement in spirituality or religion.
  8. Engagement in family life
  9. Engagement in social life.

Blue Zones Pyramid

Credit: Blue Zones

How Can These Lessons be Incorporated into the Design of Living Environments? 

Both Harriett and Dan speak to the importance of how one’s living environment can nudge someone towards better lifestyle decisions. For Harriett, subtle approaches in landscape design can make it easier for people to be active outside and connect with those around them. For Dan, he points out how certain features in a home can help promote better lifestyle habits.

At Smart Living 360, we feel the same way: designing spaces and environments for enhanced well-being can make a difference. For example, we design fitness rooms that have a wide range of equipment to support uses for people of all ages. Our residents have reported an increase in physical activity. Indeed, research has also shown the impact of convenience on frequency of activity. We design community spaces conducive to social interaction.  These spaces, coupled with a friendly culture facilitated by our Lifestyle Ambassador, have led to increased social engagement, including intergenerational connection. In addition, we provide access to lifestyle and health services intended to make life easier and less stressful, and promote a lifestyle of simplicity which allows people to focus on what’s most important.

The Choice is Yours

Increasing longevity is most beneficial to us if we have a high quality of life in those extra years. The good news is that the choice is largely ours. Each of us can take steps now, like instituting elements of the Power 9, towards a longer and healthier life.

The Stories Rental

Why Rent?

Why Rent?

For generations, a key element of the American Dream has been to own one’s home. This mentality was ushered in at scale during the 1950s when the Federal Housing Authority created attractive financing that led to the suburban housing boom. These homes housed many of today’s 76 million Baby Boomers. Not only has ownership been a goal for many, it has also been a key source of wealth creation, particularly in environments with low interest rates, reasonable leverage and appreciating home values. Why would anyone rent?

As it turns out, there are a number of reasons to rent. For some, it is simply a matter of economics: they do not have the means to own. However, for many, the housing bust of the last decade was a reminder that home ownership was not risk-free. Home ownership currently stands at 64%, down from the peak of 69% in 2004. Some of this drop is a result of the Great Recession, ongoing economic challenges for Millennials and rising housing costs, particularly in major metropolitan markets. But, there is another trend at work: the emergence of renters by choice.

Emergence of Renters by Choice

Renters by choice, by definition, can afford to either own or rent a home. They constitute a wide range of consumers. It can include young professionals and couples looking for flexibility, a desirable location and convenience. It can include single parents or transient families that do not wish to commit to homeownership. Or, it can involve empty nesters and retirees who see the benefit of downsizing and simplifying life and appreciate the financial benefits of renting, particularly in an era of increasing longevity.

What We Learned

We recently asked the question ‘Why Rent?’ to residents of The Stories at Congressional Plaza, a Smart Living 360 community in Rockville, Maryland. We sought out nearly a dozen renters by choice and sat down with them one-on-one to learn about why they chose The Stories and what have they have most appreciated at the community. Attributes mentioned were wide ranging but three key dimensions emerged: location, apartment design and financial sense.

Location, Location, Location

Like much of real estate in general, location reigned supreme.  A parent indicated that “my life revolves around this area – my extended family, my job, my place of worship” and praised the convenience that a central location provides. One woman, who works in the area, liked her proximity to work as she is one of those people who “likes to live and work close together.” One retired couple has lived much of their lives in the area and had “no desire to leave” an area they know so well and have established connections. Others extolled the benefits of having walkable access to restaurants, retail and the metro.

Home is My Castle

One of the frequent criticisms of apartment living is that it does not feel like home. However, residents we interviewed expressed the opposite: they have made The Stories their home. One female resident downsized from a larger apartment in Washington D.C., painted every room and selected custom fixtures and describes her living environment as “her sanctuary.” In another case, a retired couple selected wall paper, added technology features like the Nest and customized their closets. They signed a multi-year lease as they see the “community as their home”.  A single male who has moved many times over his life indicated that he and his dog prefer this environment to the single family house he previously lived in.

Renting Makes Good Financial Sense

A number of these renters by choice were confident renting was the best financial decision for them. One retired couple, who has both owned and rented over their lives, were convicted that “renting costs less”, pointed out the energy efficiencies of apartment living and saw renting as an “insurance policy against bad things that can happen to the real estate industry or a particular home”. Another resident, who is a financial advisor by trade, identified the “option value in renting” as well as the value in freeing up time from home maintenance. One resident sold her townhome to move into The Stories, in part, because of high condominium fees and other maintenance costs. One particularly financially astute resident lives in a one bedroom but owns property in the area. She has “rightsized her living space but is still part of the real estate investment game.”

Shifting Focus from Ownership to What’s Best for Personal Well-Being

For renters by choice, the question is less whether renting or buying is better but what living environment is best for personal well-being. We asked this question of residents surveyed, too. We were pleased to hear that most residents self-reported an improved sense of well-being. For some, it was increased physical activity with the convenience of a well-equipped fitness center or increased walking by living in a walkable area. For others, it was being part of a friendly community where you know your neighbors and opportunities exist to engage in community events. Perhaps the American Dream should be less about realizing home ownership and more about finding a home that helps each of us thrive.

Amazon Echo

“Alexa, can you…?”

Amazon’s Echo/Echo Dot was the hottest gift this holiday season. Amazon refused to disclose the actual number sold but indicated it was in the millions and approximately nine times greater than last holiday season. Indeed, even our family now has “Alexa” in our kitchen.

Alexa has been a hit. In our house, my wife & I use it to track items to buy at the grocery store (conventional grocery lists have never worked very well for us) and our kids use it for a number of smaller tasks, including getting the weather forecast and asking for jokes (“Why should you go on a cheese diet? If you need to cheddar a few pounds!”). People are using Alexa for all sorts of clever uses, including some examples where Alexa has been instrumental in positively impacting their well-being.

Technology Delivering on Some of its Promises, Particularly Artificial Intelligence

Alexa and its integrated capabilities with smart appliances using voice was a highlight earlier this month at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. CES is notorious for showcasing some early stage products that receive buzz but are ultimately duds: the Microsoft SPOT Watch, Netbooks and Google Glass. However, something very significant is happening in the area of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and deep learning, the key drivers behind Alexa. As The Economist outlines in its recent survey, AI, while victim to many false starts, is now gaining momentum with significant venture capital investment and is embedded in many of the recent technology advances from Alexa to autonomous vehicles to IBM’s Watson.

Technology’s Impact on Our Living Environments 

Following suit, Vivek Wadwa, a leading futurist in Silicon Valley, has declared 2017 the year of the bot (Alexa is an example of a bot), in a recent Washington Post article.  I heard Vivek speak last spring at the National Multifamily Housing Council’s Leadership Conference. He highlighted the impact of rapidly changing technologies and how our living environments will need to accommodate these advances to improve people’s quality of life. Examples include the need for physical spaces to support increased volume of deliveries (including via drones!), internet infrastructure to support high definition video, including as it relates to supporting telehealth, and the ability to coordinate on-demand services.

The Smart Living 360 Approach

Technology is a key element in the approach for Smart Living 360 communities. We include advanced equipment in our fitness centers, design spaces for telehealth capabilities and offer residents the ability to customize technology options, such as smart thermostats and smart entertainment systems. A critical design element is to create flexibility for new technologies as they emerge and to make them easy for people to use in an integrated way. We have found that technology advances can be as overwhelming as they can be helpful and helping people understand what’s most useful and how to use them can be very valuable. Our Lifestyle Ambassador takes the lead on this effort.

However, as important as technology is and the inevitably greater role it will have in our lives and managing our health, we see technology as taking a back seat to the critical importance of face-to-face connection, a subject of a 2016 blog.

There is a Limit to this Alexa

While Vivek Wadwa points out the benefits of these emerging technologies, he is also quick to point out the ethical and health challenges that many of these advances introduce. Much of our society struggles with social isolation and depression and we mustn’t let these digital friends take the place of real friends. According to a recent report in New Scientist, hundreds of thousands of people say ‘Good morning’ to Alexa every day, half a million people have professed their love for it and more than a quarter of a million have proposed marriage to it.

Embracing the benefits of technology while creating boundaries for its use will continue to be a key challenge of our age.  Fortunately, healthy living environments can help us strike the proper balance.

Design Thinking for Your Life

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

As 2016 draws to a close, many of us will reflect on the year that was and the year ahead. For some, this will involve New Year’s resolutions. This was often the case for my family growing up. However, as one considers bigger life changes, a simple new year’s goal may not be the best approach.

Impact and Opportunities Provided by Increasing Longevity

As we benefit from unprecedented increases in longevity – experts believe the first person to live to 150 is alive today – life’s chapters can be written very differently than in past generations. It’s not as simple as grow up, go to college, work and retire.  In fact, an increasing number of people are not looking to retire at any age. Others simply can’t afford to retire at sixty-five. And, for those who are younger, there is an opportunity to fundamentally rethink about how to allocate time by life stage. (Here’s a four minute video that looks into the implications and opportunities.)

Making the most of our lives in an era of increasing longevity is a complex problem. Fortunately, there are innovative people helping out. These people are taking tools that have worked for other complex problems and applying them to our lives. One of these tools is Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking has brought us the computer mouse, among other famous breakthrough innovations. Design Thinking, according to Wikipedia, is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result. It is centered on a users’ needs and preferences and is anchored in learning from real users’ feedback often through quickly and inexpensively assembled prototypes. Design Thinking started in the engineering field but has now influenced business more generally.

Design Thinking for Your Life

Now Design Thinking is being applied to one’s life. In the recently released Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, Stanford professors, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, outline a process for using Design Thinking principles to build—design—a life one can thrive in, at any age or stage. Mr. Burnett, a professor at Stanford’s d.School, and Mr. Evans, a seasoned hi-tech entrepreneur and executive, teach “Designing Your Life”, one of the most popular elective classes at Stanford. Their book brings these ideas to a much larger audience, including those from a wide variety of life stages.

The initial step is to identify the problem with a Life Design Assessment which involves creating a Health/Work/Play/Love dashboard. After this assessment, the next step is to create a Lifeview (simply one’s ideas about the world and how it works) and then to observe one’s life through journal exercises to see what areas of life provide greatest engagement and energy. Next, there is ideation (i.e., efforts to brainstorm in a semi-structured way around possible directions) and then to begin prototyping specific actions because the best learning is by doing. Lessons from these prototypes provide feedback for future directions.

Design Thinking at Work at Smart Living 360

We used Design Thinking methods in creating the first Smart Living 360 community, The Stories at Congressional Plaza in Rockville, Maryland. We partnered with graduate students studying Design Thinking at the The University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) to create, test and iterate on some of our physical design, marketing & leasing approaches and delivery of services. Critical to this was for the students to spend time in people’s homes to better understand what they may be looking for when ‘rightsizing’ to an apartment community in a walkable mixed-use setting.

Ironically, a number of our residents employed Design Thinking principles in deciding to move to The Stories. One recent resident, a recruiting executive, felt that she was isolated and had too much space to maintain in a three story townhome. Curious to see what else was available in the market, she discovered The Stories and was drawn to its design and efficient use of space, community-orientation and affordable and predictable cost. She signed a short term lease to try it out but expects to sign a longer term lease in the future. She is “prototyping” this new lifestyle and is very pleased with the results.

As people engage in life planning exercises, it’s entirely possible, even likely in certain cases, that changes in living environments will be a natural outcome.

Practice What You Preach

A recent new year goal for my Dad was to create a life plan. He’s made progress but he’s not there yet. My Christmas gift is to help him finish out a plan, using Designing Your Life as our guide. Who knows; maybe it will help my parents think through the best living environment for them in the years ahead.

Chocolate Cake

Relationships are the Cake

Around the Thanksgiving Table 

In a week, many of us will be around a dinner table with friends and family celebrating Thanksgiving. Along the way, it is estimated that close to 50 million turkeys will be consumed and certainly loads of stuffing, sweet potato casseroles and pumpkin pies.  While the food will be scrumptious, it is the company that will really matter and probably more than you realize.  Just look at the research.

Relationships Are The Cake

Dr. Dan Siegel is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and Executive Director of Mindsight Institute.  He is an author of dozens of books – most recently Mind – and he circles the world sharing his insights on the field called interpersonal neurobiology.  I recently heard him at a talk he gave in Baltimore as part of an event for an innovative and nationally recognized mentoring program called Thread.

Dr. Siegel studies how the brain grows and is influenced by interpersonal relationships.  He has been able to combine many approaches of what it means to be human from a scientific point of view, a developmental and practical perspective and how we find meaning in our lives.  In his view, it is this integration that is at the heart of well-being and mental health.

Your brain is not your mind, according to Dr. Siegel and his research.  Your mind is your whole body, including your brain, your heart and other organs, and interactions with other people.  This is the integrated view. It is in this thinking that “relationships are not the icing on the cake, they are the cake.”

In fact, he cites that the number one predictor for mental health, longevity, happiness and medical health is rich relationships.

He is also quick to note that while all relationships are important, your brain responds particularly well to relationships with people who are different than you.

His research indicates that the key to mental health is a combination of belonging to a community of face-to-face relationships along with caring for the body in an integrated way, including seeking exercise, nutrition, sleep and brain health.

A Timely Message

His research and insights come at a poignant time.  Following last week’s election, our divided country needs to find ways for dialogue and relationship among a diverse group of people.  It’s good to know that not only are such connections good for our country but they are also good for our brain health.

Moreover, anxiety and social isolation are becoming more common in our society.  The World Health Organization reports that nearly 20% of Americans indicate they suffer from chronic anxiety – a rate much higher than most developing countries.  Also, a hospital CEO I met  earlier this week says his organization’s greatest health challenge is not heart disease, obesity or diabetes but social isolation.  Community can help remedy these ills.  People are missing “the cake.”

Connection as a Pillar of Smart Living 360

Smart Living 360 creates innovative living environments that enhance well-being. One of the key principles is connection. Residents have opportunities to socialize and connect with their neighbors, family, and friends, as well as the community at large.  At The Stories at Congressional Plaza – the first Smart Living 360 community –   this has led to valued relationships, including intergenerational relationships.  We believe that a feeling of connectedness is part of the essence of well-being.  We see relationships as the cake, not the icing.


Dr. Siegel also explains how the brain responds to generosity. In a study where individuals could either keep $20 to spend on themselves or give the money away to others, researchers found that that brains of givers emit higher dopamine levels, an indication of higher levels of happiness. So, while you enjoy fellowship over Thanksgiving and the benefits of social connection, you may also want to offer the last piece of pumpkin pie to someone else – this may make you even happier. You may miss out on that last piece of pie, but by building a relationship you gain the whole cake.

All Hands on Deck

All Hands on Deck

All Hands on Deck

A couple of years ago, when our youngest child was in kindergarten, I visited the classroom. It was chaos.  Little people running around.  Lots of noise.  Even a little bit of stinkiness. It was more commotion than I was used to in a confined setting. The teacher did an amazing job of corralling the energetic kids and directing them towards productive activities. But she was not alone. She was often helped by Jim.

Initially, I thought Jim was a grandparent who helped out from time to time. Later, I thought he was a co-teacher given his great level of involvement. He focused on reading skills, including with our son, Andrew. Andrew benefited from the attention but he also liked Jim’s company. Andrew spoke fondly of how nice it was to have someone like ‘Papa’ or ‘Grandpop’ around even though his grandfathers lived across country.

Experience Corps

It turns out that Jim wasn’t related to any of the kids in the class. He was a volunteer as a part of Experience Corps, an organization that Marc Freedman of helped launch and that is now part of the AARP Foundation. In existence since the 1990s, Experience Corps has nearly 2,000 highly-trained volunteers working in 21 cities and serves over 30,000 students every year in high-need elementary schools. Baltimore has a particularly robust branch of Experience Corps with over 300 volunteers serving nearly 6,000 kids. Volunteers, like Jim, are trained and commit at least 15 hours a week in the classroom. This is an example of the intergenerational power of “all hands on deck.”

And It’s Proven to Be Good for Your Health

As one might expect, the impact is positive for the kids. The program has shown to improve reading and math test scores, increase attendance and positively impact the classroom climate.

The surprise is the impact on the volunteers. Evidence found by Johns Hopkins researchers and others indicate that older adults that volunteer for a significant number of hours each week reap important physical health, brain health and community outcomes as a result of the participation. In one study, purposeful activity embedded within a social health program halted and, in men, reversed declines in brain volume in regions vulnerable to dementia. In another study, participation in an intergenerational civic engagement program was shown to positively alter self-perceptions of generativity in older adulthood. In other words, it can help with purpose.

“All Hands” Can Happen Organically, Too

At The Stories at Congressional Plaza in Rockville, MD the first Smart Living 360 community, we bring together people of all ages by design.  In the process, the power of serendipity can also create intergenerational connections. For example, Ms. Graff, a retired school teacher, was introduced to a family with two teenage girls that are being home schooled.  Part of their curriculum is French, one of Ms. Graff’s areas of expertise. Over the last month, she has tutored each of the girls and has seen encouraging development.

“It’s a true ‘win-win’,” says Ms. Graff, who resides in The Stories along with her husband. The girls benefit from one-on-one attention and Ms. Graff benefits from an opportunity to practice her French. Ms. Graff finds it particularly gratifying to work with motivated students and see them build confidence in their abilities and believe in their potential. This is beginning to happen with the girls. And it is all made easier by living in the same community with common spaces to meet and where transportation – walking and an elevator – is simple.

Renee, a 9th grader, attributes the tutoring relationship to something broader. She believes it’s the culture of the community. “People here want to help each other,” says Renee. Before moving into The Stories, her family lived in a single family home and did not know their neighbors as well. She’s been touched by this new environment where she has been helped and also helped others.  This is “all hands on deck” in action.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

The benefits of face-to-face connection are real and the value of intergenerational relationships is particularly important.  In today’s highly mobile, technology-enabled society, we may have to seek out intergenerational relationships much more so than in the past. One option may be to be live in communities where such relationships are common and encouraged. Regardless, with increasing lifespans – experts say the first person to live to 150 is alive today – many may find a reason to dive back into the unique atmosphere of kindergarten and, in the end, we will all be better off. “All hands on deck” is more than a nautical term. It’s a way to imagine intergenerational flourishing.

Financial Security

On Financial Well-Being

“Be Brilliant”

I stumbled across a clever TV commercial the other day.  Ameriprise Financial created a set of “Passions” commercials which highlights people doing what they love which was made possible by good financial planning.  In one commercial, people are living their “next chapters” as an architect turned boat builder, attorney turned potter, programmer turned beekeeper and accountant turned volunteer.  Ameriprise’s tagline is “When you have the right financial advisor, life can be brilliant.”  In essence, they highlight how financial well-being can influence other dimensions of well-being, including purpose.

Financial Management in a New Era of Longevity

It’s one thing to create a catchy commercial but quite another to actually execute a viable personal financial plan, especially in an era of increasing longevity.  Experts suggest that the first person to live to 150 years of age is alive today.  What must that person’s financial plan look like?!?

The truth is that we probably don’t know. We know that financial security – the perception that you have more than enough money to do what you want to do — has three times the impact of your income alone on overall wellbeing.  We also know that creating healthy defaults, such as having corporate retirement accounts pre-checked for employees which has been found to have achieve more than 80% participation, is important.  (Similar to the defaults for physical well-being that we explored last month.)  And, in a world where pensions are less common and social security is destined to get restructured, it seems highly likely that people will need to work longer.

Financial Management in the Shared Economy and Future of Home Ownership

What also may happen is that people of all ages, not just Millennials, will rethink what they have to own versus rent when they need a given product or service.  Of course, we are already seeing this in transportation with the growth of Uber and the advent of the autonomous vehicle.  But, what about other parts of our lives?

What about home ownership?  Home ownership in the US fell to 62.9% in the second quarter, the lowest level in more than 50 years and down from its peak of 69.2% in 2004.  Affordability and tightening credit standards are certainly key drivers impacting this trend.

On the other hand, maybe home ownership is not necessarily the best option, even for those who can afford it.  Single family houses, especially older ones, are expensive to maintain. They are subject to unexpected or substantial one-time costs like the replacement of a roof. They are also inefficient to heat and cool and costly to cover insurance and real estate taxes.  Also, people tend to overlook the opportunity cost of equity in their home.  And, for those more concerned about managing downside risk, the Great Recession was a reminder of the challenges of selling a home at an attractive price when the market turns the wrong direction.  For these reasons, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a growing market of “renters by choice.”

Role for New Housing Models that Improve Financial Well-Being

While apartment activity has been robust in recent years – unit starts have quadrupled to nearly 400,000 since 2009 – many industry experts expect this activity to continue, particularly if low interest rates persist.  At Smart Living 360, we see an opportunity to focus some of this development on creating communities that elevate personal well-being, including financial well-being.  For those with the resources to own homes, a number of people – including empty nesters – may find that renting is less expensive and a better financial decision, in addition to enjoying other benefits such as walkability to services, in-house amenities and developing rich social connections.  In fact, at The Stories at Congressional Plaza, we have seen a number of residents make this choice to rent for exactly these reasons.

A Great Day to Feel Alive

The Ameriprise commercial features the pop song “Day to Feel Alive.”  The lyrics make mention of the ups and downs of life but point to the fact at any stage it’s “Good to know, there’s so much to live for.”  Indeed, with good financial well-being, it is easier to feel alive and pursue those things of greatest importance.

On Physical Well-Being

“Do Your Best and Forget the Rest”

Catch phrases by Tony Horton, creator of the home exercise phenomenon P90X, still ring in my head.  “Do your best and forget the rest.”  “Bring it.”  “Quality over quantity.”  P90X, short for Power 90 Days Extreme, is a series of home exercise videos created in 2003 that have sold 4.2 million copies.  These are intense workouts.

My wife and I got caught up in the P90X phenomenon back in 2010.  We turned our basement into a gym. Strength bands. Pull-up bar.  Some of the workouts nearly killed us, but they positively impacted our moods. We seemed to eat healthier and sleep better, too.

The Basics: Exercise, Food Choices, Sleep

Not everyone is suited for the intensity of P90X.  There is, however, a healthy balance that covers the basics of physical well-being.  Here are three:

Exercising, even briefly, can make a big impact for managing weight, improving mood, boosting energy and improving sleep. It is even helpful in combating disease. In fact, researchers in Cambridge, UK have found that just an hour’s exercise a week can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by almost half. The nature of exercise depends on the age and stage of life. For example, lifting weights may be more important as we age. It helps build bone density.  

We are what we eat.  The merits of the Mediterranean Diet are well documented, and grocery stores, restaurants and food delivery services are making it easier to identify and choose healthy options.

Sleep matters, too. One study found that people who get less than seven hours sleep were nearly three times as likely to develop a cold.  Arianna Huffington has raised the issue of sleep deprivation to the national public with her recent book, The Sleep Revolution.

Power of Healthy Defaults

In combination, these healthy choices make a big difference.  As Dr. Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, notes, “After 70, a mere four factors — exercising, not smoking, consuming alcohol only moderately and following a Mediterranean diet heavy on fruits, vegetables and healthy fats like olive oil — reduce by a whopping 60 percent one’s chance of dying from any cause over a ten-year period.”

Golden Opportunity for the Built Environment to Enhance Physical Well-Being

Your physical environment goes a long way towards making good choices a default choice.  By that, we recognize that most daily choices – upwards of 95 percent – are non-conscious, non-consciously chosen.  They are the product of our physical environment – and we take that into account in promoting well-being.

In the Smart Living 360 model, we invest significantly in a diverse array of physical fitness options for residents, ensuring that each community is embedded with the flexibility for people of all ages and stages to meet their physical fitness goals. We utilize the latest treadmills and StairMasters®, but we also incorporate the Expresso HD cardio bike that allows riders to cover terrain mirrored after real places, such as biking over the Golden Gate Bridge, and compete with other riders.  We have special stretching and strength equipment that are equally helpful for people looking for intensity and others who may be rehabbing from an injury or surgery.  Our lifestyle ambassadors help get people started with our gym.  Then, we bring in fitness instructors to create customized exercise regimens.

We also see an important role to help residents stay connected to physicians and wellness coaches. We have a room outfitted with the capabilities for telehealth. Over time, we expect residents to be able to easily share their key health data real-time with their physicians and other experts to help them stay healthy.

Taking a page out of my experience with P90X, we have also made it easy for people to stream exercise videos on a large TV, such as for yoga, Pilates and cardio workouts and to do so as a group.  In fact, the P90X DVDs my wife and I used have now been augmented by online streaming videos.  Residents can now stream P90X in our fitness gym but they should be warned of a risk.  They might hear Tony Horton talking to them in their sleep!

On Personal Connection

Technology is Amazing But It’s Not the Same as Personal, Face-to-Face Connection

Technology is transforming our lives. In a moment’s notice, we can summon a ride, skype a friend continents away or upload our health data to a physician for immediate feedback. Now, we even have tens of millions of people playing Pokémon Go across the globe!

However, for all its amazing benefits, it does not provide in person, face-to-face connection. And it turns out that it matters. It matters a lot.

Personal Connection is At Least as Important as Your Diet

In The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters, Susan Pinker outlines the significant impact of face-to-face personal connection, such a connection that Facebook or Skype can’t provide. She notes in her book that “the connection between social involvement and robust physical and mental health is no fluke, and that the benefits of regular social contact are at least as powerful as regular exercise and a healthy diet.” Further, there are literally physiological changes that personal connection creates. In response to physical ailments, the right kind of social contact instructs the body to secrete more endogenous opiates, which act as local painkillers, and fewer hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and corticosterioids – the body’s often destructive answer to immediate stressors – which can affect our physical resilience.

Social connection can make a big difference for those warding off disease, such as cancer. Testing for the impact of social connection versus social isolation, researchers have found that female rats that live in groups are 84 times less likely as their socially isolated kin to develop breast cancer tumors. Among humans, socially isolated women are 66% percent more likely to die of breast cancer than women who had at least ten friends they could count.

The Surprising Impact of Your Social Network

One’s social network also has a surprisingly profound indirect impact. In fact, the habits of your social network can be contagious. Using data from the Framingham Heart Study, researchers have found that health problems such as obesity and alcoholism seem to travel from person to person within identifiable cliques. In other words, becoming obese can be contagious within real social networks, much the way a bad cold gets passed along at a dinner party.

There’s an important flip side, of course. The right socializing with the right friends can help you ward off loneliness and chronic illness. My brother-in-law, Dr. Henry Cloud, recently released his now New York Times best-selling book, The Power of the Other, which highlights many of the attributes of positive social connection that help lead to peak performance and high-levels of well-being.

At the Same Time, Isolation is Becoming More Prevalent

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, through his seminal work Bowling Alone in 2000, has been a vocal thought leader to highlight the emerging issue of social isolation. Today, 32 million Americans live alone, a figure that has risen every decade since the early 20th century. There are an additional 30 million people who may not live alone but characterize themselves as socially isolated and they are not happy about it.

Lessons from Blue Zones

The good news is that there are successful lessons to be learned elsewhere in the world. One such example is Sardinia’s Nuoro province which is considered a Blue Zone, a demographic and geographic area where people live measurably longer lines. Here, people benefit from rich multigenerational interactions and are part of a cultural expectation to pursue “reciprocal altruism”. Indeed, Harvard researchers have shown that people can live longer if they choose to live with a group of like-minded people creating, in effect, a village.

Opportunity to Create Communities, Not Buildings

All of this adds up to an enormous opportunity to create social capital within our built environments. On the surface, many apartment buildings and condominiums can be seen strictly as sticks and bricks. However, conceived and positioned differently, these environments can be thriving communities where positive social connection is fostered and nurtured.

Connection – personal, face-to-face connection – is one of the three core principles of Smart Living 360. We have designed common spaces to facilitate interaction, we host events to bring people together and our Lifestyle Ambassador makes special efforts to connect like-minded people. At our recently opened community, The Stories at Congressional Plaza, we are seeing the impact of this connection. One of our older residents, who has no immediate family in the area, has forged a friendship with a pre-teen whose family has recently relocated from California. Another resident hosts a monthly craft night where people in and outside of The Stories are invited to participate in making crafts through knitting, etc. Building of social capital is in progress.

Although technology will undoubtedly create unbelievable advances, we must never forget the irreplaceable importance of in-person face-to-face connections and recognize the opportunity to cultivate social capital through our physical environments.

On Purpose


It’s That Time of Year

This is commencement speech time.  Some of my favorites are the fictitious “Wear Sunscreen” commencement speech from the late ‘90s (which was later tuned into a song), Steve Jobs “How to Live Before You Die” at Stanford in 2005 (viewed over 8 million times on YouTube) and, from this year, Atul Gawande’s talk to CalTech on the importance of scientific thinking for all of us.  In our age of constant connectivity through text messages, tweets and facebook posts, these commencement speeches perhaps have never been more important to help us slow down for a moment and focus on what’s most important.  This time for reflection often points us to our purpose.

However, as much as thoughtful and inspiring commencement speeches are provocative, it feels like something larger is happening.  It seems like the narrative of finding one’s purpose is of increasing importance for people of all ages.  Indeed, Millennials have developed a reputation for seeking purpose in their jobs, not just a paycheck.  As Boomers enter retirement age, they, too, are increasingly looking at ways to use their gifts to make a difference, rather than just exit stage left from society.

Purpose Matters

The research community has an opinion on purpose.  It matters.  Dr. Laura Carstensen, Founding Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, points out in the video The Big Idea in 4 Minutes – Coming of Age In Aging America that “there isn’t anything in the psychology literature that suggests that it’s good for people to go on vacation for decades.”  People need purpose.  And, with purpose, people are more likely to look out for their health and well-being.  According to a research paper “Purpose in life and use of preventative health care services” by Kim, Stecher and Ryff, people with greater purpose are also more likely to be proactive in taking care of their health, including being more likely to pursue preventative health care services, such as flu shots, cholesterol tests, etc.  In other words, having greater purpose can be both better for the individual and for our society.

Institutions Supporting a Movement

Have a Purpose - Metropolitan College - 6-16Institutions are recognizing this greater sensitivity to purpose and are providing onramps.  Colleges, such as Metropolitan College of New York with their “Why just a have a job? Have a Purpose” campaign, are signaling to prospective students that their curriculum will help them find purpose.  Stanford University started the Distinguished Careers Institute, founded by Dr. Philip Pizzo, to attract established leaders eager to deepen their knowledge and/or embrace new fields and reflect on their life journeys, explore new pathways and redirect their lives for the common good.  AARP has a separate division called Life Reimagined and has created a set of tools, including a “LifeMap” to help people of all ages discover their purpose and create a plan of action.

Housing that Increases Purpose

Housing can have a critical role in increasing purpose, too.  At Smart Living 360, we believe that residential communities can be a catalyst for people to find greater purpose.  We encourage residents to share their goals and aspirations with others in the community.  We facilitate friendships between residents and provide opportunities for people to help each other use their unique gifts, which is particularly powerful in an intergenerational context.  We have relationships with life coaches and host workshops on life planning.  We have connections with local groups for volunteering opportunities.  (If you’re wondering how we achieve these lofty goals then check out the three minute fast pitch talk at the Encore conference earlier this year.  It outlines in greater detail my vision for creating communities of purpose.)

We all benefit from the momentarily lift of an inspirational commencement talk. But the real opportunity is to have purpose more wired into our day-to-day actions.  Research demonstrates that it is good for our health and our society.  So let’s get going!