Spring Is Here! Time to Get Into Nature!
After a particularly brutal winter, those of us who live in cooler climates are happily venturing outside to soak up some sunshine and smell the flowers. This is a great idea for people of every age, and especially for older adults, who may need to make a little extra effort to get out among trees, birds and buzzing bees.
Artists and poets extoll the wonders of nature—and so do scientists! Recent studies show that spending time in nature benefits older adults in many ways:
It improves our overall health. A 2015 University of Chicago study found that living in a neighborhood with trees can lower our stress level and even our blood pressure.
It encourages us to exercise our body and mind. University of Minnesota researchers say that spending time in a natural setting motivates seniors “to be active physically, spiritually and socially.”
It increases energy. University of Rochester researcher Richard Ryan reports, “Nature is fuel for the soul. Often when we feel depleted, we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.”
It promotes brain health. A study published by the Association for Psychological Science found that interacting with nature improves memory performance and attention span by 20 percent.
It fights depression. Seniors are at higher risk of depression, which can lead to a spiral of decline. Spending time in a natural setting, taking in the sights, smells and sounds that we humans evolved to love, can lift the mood and give us a sense of perspective about life.
It encourages intergenerational connections. University of Minnesota researcher Jennifer Finlay reports that people of every age are more likely to interact in a natural setting. She said, “We don’t just need a playground for children. We also need sheltered benches for the grandparents who watch them.”
Jason Conover, a clinical social worker from the Utah Valley Psychiatry and Counseling Clinic recently offered five suggestions to help people raise their spirits in nature:
- Bask in the sun. Sunshine is a great natural mood booster—it makes people feel better, regardless of the season. Find time to be in the sun every day; even 10 minutes is very helpful.
- Leave technology behind. Technology can be useful, but it lacks the centering or balancing power of nature. Conover points out there’s a quality to being connected to the earth at its most basic level that helps us feel peace and think about the big picture. Spend time anywhere in nature. Sit by a river or walk on the grass with bare feet.
- Take the plunge. Research shows that plunging into cool water is an antidepressant. Additionally, water seems to have some healing properties in both its sound and touch. Play by the river, go swimming—enjoy water’s soothing quality. Conover adds you can put your hands or your face into cold water to trigger the “mammalian diving reflex,” which helps to rebalance and calm us.
- Dig in the dirt. Connecting with the earth helps you feel like a part of creation. As plants grow and change, you realize you can, too. Forget our clean culture for a while and get a little dirt under your nails. Find something to plant and you’ll end up with a fruitful harvest for your mental well-being.
- Breathe it in. Being active outdoors ties two import things together—increased oxygen levels and elevated heart rate. Even short periods of moderate walking outdoors have been proven to have positive results.
Into the wild
Even if you live in the city, seek out spaces with natural beauty. Go to the park, explore public courtyards, start a garden, or sit by a fountain. If you can, take a day trip to the country. Senior centers and senior living communities often plan trips to areas of natural beauty. It’s worth the effort to take part!