Healthy Aging Part 8: Physical Wellness

by Robin Bush, ISR Communications

We all know the importance of eating well, exercising, avoiding smoking, reducing stress and sugar, avoiding processed foods, and not spending too much time sitting during the day. You might find the next time you visit your doctor, you are told to “Get outside every day.”  Healthcare providers recognize that a healthy lifestyle and prevention of chronic illnesses include going outdoors. Vermont has even adopted a “Park Prescription Program” where doctors can prescribe free entry into state parks to support this vital aspect of health. Maybe Washington State will follow suit.

Did you ever imagine how many ways you can benefit your health as you age by simply going outside every day? Getting outside can decrease obesity, diabetes, and hypertension and improve sleep, cardiovascular health, and immunity. There’s even a nonprofit called Park RX America whose mission is to “decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness, and foster environmental stewardship by prescribing nature during routine doctor visits.”  (Their website under the “Patients” tab has a comprehensive list of the health benefits of being in nature and it is worth reading the list).

The EPA estimates that Americans spend an average of 80%-90% of their time indoors. A study by Mathew White at the University of Exeter found people who spend two hours a week in nature had substantially better health than those who did not. “Two hours was a hard boundary,” White says. “The effects on those who spent at least two hours in nature were robust, cutting across different occupations, ethnic groups, people from rich and poor areas, and people with chronic illnesses and disabilities.” 

Not everyone is able to spend two hours a week outside or walk 20 minutes each day. For those with mobility challenges, simply sitting under a tree will help to connect a person with nature and benefit physical and mental health. If you can’t sit under a tree, spend time at an open window, deep breathing fresh air and natural smells, listening, and absorbing the visual scenery. These will still provide immune-boosting results. And, if you can, try placing a bird feeder by your window and spending time identifying the birds that visit the feeder.

For those who have greater mobility:

“10 minutes of gardening can alleviate depression. 

20 minutes of hiking among trees or birdwatching reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. 

30 minutes of walking in a park or watching your grandkids laugh on a playground can lower blood pressure and heart rate. 

45 minutes of hiking in the mountains results in less fatigue and higher alertness than 45 minutes inside walking on a treadmill. 

60 minutes spent interacting with nature can boost memory and attention span by 20%.”

(Source: Growing Bolder: Connecting with Nature)

JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Neurology reported that people could cut the risk of developing dementia by 50% by walking a target of 9,800 steps daily (walking with purpose, not sauntering). Their findings were based on a study of nearly 80,000 people in the U.K. several years ago. They also found that higher-intensity walking for 30 minutes daily had a 62% lower risk. Long-term results are still being studied.

“Spending time immersed in nature does wonders to our brains. It encourages mindfulness which helps heighten our senses, and stimulates the brain, thereby improving our cognitive functions and combating anxiety and depression,” says Christine Kingsley, health and wellness director at the Lung Institute in Manchester, Connecticut. “Forest bathing helps boost immunity as it exposes one to a phytoncide-rich atmosphere, a compound released by trees, that triggers the increase of natural killer (NK) cells in the blood.” Kingsley continues, “Stronger immunity means that the body’s protective responses against harmful viruses, bacteria, and other foreign bodies are hyper-charged, helping keep infections and diseases at bay, specifically alleviating hypertension and reducing the risk of chronic heart failure.”

Don’t miss our other articles on our blog: “Let Nature Bring You Home” and “Time for a Belly Laugh” for additional ways to improve your physical wellness. We also post about aspects of physical health on our Facebook page: