Surprising Longevity Wisdom — from the Desert?

longevity May 01, 2022

They can live to be 300 years old, weigh more than four tons, and aren’t considered “adults” until they’re 125 years old. (Talk about longevity!)

No, I’m not talking about some sort of mythical creature.

I’m talking about the remarkable giant saguaro cactus that lives only in the Sonoran Desert. A desert that stretches 120,000 square miles through southwestern Arizona, southeastern California, and northwestern Mexico.

It’s the largest species of cacti in the country and what you typically envision when you think of the Southwestern United States.


A giant saguaro cactus. (One Jim Donovan for scale.)
IMAGE SOURCE: Dan Ostrowski


A breathtaking view of Picacho Peak State Park.
IMAGE SOURCE: Dan Ostrowski


Models of Resilience

Back in late February 2020 (which seems like a lifetime ago now), I had the pleasure of seeing these majestic cacti up close during a work trip to Canyon Ranch resort in Tucson, Arizona.

On the drive to Tucson from Phoenix, my colleague Dan and I stopped at Picacho Peak State Park to take in the scenery.


Wandering the desert wilderness.
IMAGE SOURCE: Dan Ostrowski


As I explored the park, I was taken aback by all the beauty. And getting to see these cacti up close was truly spectacular. I was in awe of them.

Lush desert beauty.
IMAGE SOURCE: Dan Ostrowski


Later that evening, I did a little research on these cacti, to find how they live for so long in such an “inhospitable” climate.

What I learned blew me away. I discovered that saguaro cacti are:

  • Impeccably designed. Their skin is covered with a thick, waxy coating that essentially makes them waterproof and prevents evaporation. The skin is also covered with prickly spines to protect the precious water they store inside.
  • Experts at conserving resources. They have an intricate root system for maximum water efficiency. These cacti can even expand like an accordion to hold more water during the rainy seasons. And over the course of one year, they can shrink or swell up to 25 percent of their total circumference!
  • Late bloomers. They don’t develop until much, much later in life. Many saguaros don’t start to produce their first flowers until they’re about 70 years old, and their first arms by 95 years old. Some cacti produce dozens of arms, while some never grow a single one. (Why this happens remains a mystery of the desert.)
  • In symbiotic relationships with most desert life. In other words, the cacti co-exist with other desert life and depend on one another for survival. For example, the cacti provide shelter and food for hungry bats, bees, and birds, who in turn, pollinate their flowers.


You have a lot in common with a desert cactus

And as I was reflecting back on this trip the other day, I realized that we actually have a lot in common with these fascinating desert dwellers —and there’s still so much we can learn from them…

Just like the cactus, we’re naturally designed to withstand some pretty harsh conditions.

Also similar to the saguaro, sometimes it takes a little time to grow or meet your true potential.

And like the saguaro, sometimes we need a little help from others to survive.


Dodge the “magic bullets”

Certainly, the circumstances in our own lives are seemingly “inhospitable” from time to time... especially amid a global pandemic.

Our environment can feel inhospitable in times of illness, high stress, and anxiety. Or in times of job loss, financial stress, or grief.

As life intensifies from time to time, you might be tempted to reach for those “magic bullets” to help you feel better fast.

But as you might already know, after the effects wear off, the quick fixes can often make you feel worsefurther depleting your already strained and exhausted physical and mental state.

That’s why it’s always important to strive for balance and promote resilience.

When it comes to these concepts, the giant saguaro cactus inherently seems to understand them.


Improving your body’s resilience to stress

After my brief time spent in the desert, I arrived at Canyon Ranch to present at a leadership retreat.

Fittingly, I was speaking about ways to build up the body’s resilience to a particularly inhospitable element chronic stress and all the serious health problems that come with it, like heart attack and stroke.

I demonstrated ways to burn off stress with rhythmic exercises, and discussed the importance of fortifying resilience to stress though vagal tone strengthening. Vagal tone refers to the state of your vagus nerve the longest nerve in the body that spans from the bottom of the brain stem, through the body, down to the abdomen.

Basically, the higher your vagal tone, the stronger your vagus nerveand the better your ability to quickly bounce back from stressful situations.

You can build up your vagal tone by stimulating the vagus nerve. And you can do this with a few simple techniques that help you generate sound within the body.

The best part is, not only does this type of stimulation reduce stress, but it also helps to:

  • Activate the parasympathetic nervous system (your body’s calm, resting state)
  • Boost mood
  • Decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Improve focus and decision-making
  • Lower blood pressure

Teaching the group about vagal stimulation at Canyon Ranch.
IMAGE SOURCE: Dan Ostrowski


Surprising revelations at Canyon Ranch

At the end of the presentation, I checked in with the group and asked how they were feeling.

Several participants said things like:

“I feel really relaxed right now.”
“My mind never feels this clear. Thank you!”
“I don’t know why, but I just feel really happy right now.”

I ended the session with this sentiment, which I’ll also share with you:

“I didn’t do this to you. You did it for yourself. And the best part is that these exercises never stop working. In fact, they get better the more regularly you do them.”

I love when people have experiences like this.

Driving back to Phoenix that night, it was too dark to see the saguaro, yet I couldn’t stop thinking about all of those cacti standing tall in the desert, day and night.

I thought about how they live their lives with patience and grace; conserve what they need; and protect themselves with sharp thorns, yet remain connected to the many different species that live amongst them.

I never imagined I’d learn such important life lessons from a tall, prickly cactus. The wisdom of nature never ceases to amaze me.


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Barretto, A. (2009). Increased muscle sympathetic nerve activity predicts mortality in heart failure patients. International Journal of Cardiology. 135(3): pp. 302 – 307. Retrieved from:
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Dale, M. (2019). From ‘green blob’ to majestic sentinel: The science of saguaros. Cronkite News. Retrieved from:
K., A. (2013). Arizona’s Giants – the Saguaro Cactus. Retrieved from:
Leibach, J. (2013). 11 Things You Didn’t Know About Saguaro Cacti. Retrieved from:
Saguaro Cactus. (2016). National Park Service. Retrieved from:
Schlosser, S. (2016). 8 things you might not know about the saguaro cactus. Retrieved from:


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