As We Age, Spending More Time in Nature Makes Us Happier and Healthier
Spending time in nature is key to early childhood development—but the benefits of fresh air and unstructured hours spent in the great outdoors don't stop when you leave elementary school. The physical health benefits and brain-boosting effects can also contribute to a healthier aging process: Research trends show that milder climates, which allow residents to spend time outside throughout the year, may be associated with better health than climates that force residents to spend cold winters or hot summers inside.
Time spent outside is associated with better physical and mental health—at every age. Though the body reaches its physical peak around age 30, says Dr. Philip Junglas of Cleveland Clinic, "Moving—[via] the well-publicized 10,000 steps or doing moderate activity for 150 minutes a week—problem solving, and overall satisfaction seem to lessen the impact of aging." And you can reap all those benefits by stepping out your front door, he affirms. "Any age can feel an exhilaration from being outside," says Dr. Junglas, "if we are open to it." Ahead, learn more about why being in nature is beneficial as you age—and discover several ways to increase the time you spend outdoors as the years pass.
More Movement and Stimulation
"In the simplest form, going outside often entails moving and using the senses in a more diverse way than is needed inside," says Dr. Junglas, noting that being in nature provides a much needed change of scenery. "Going outside often provides different actions, such as more walking, or varying one's gaze from close to far—and provides a diversity of [sensory] input that will likely be broader than that found inside an apartment, house, or workplace."
Increased Problem Solving
The outside world is always changing—and these shifts happen on a day-to-day basis, notes Dr. Junglas. While you are outdoors, "the mind will subconsciously sift through to understand its surroundings," says Dr. Junglas—maybe you'll notice a tree in bloom, an unfamiliar birdcall, or your neighbors having their shed painted. "The mind uses these experiences to improve its understanding and problem solving in the day-to-day world. This improves the overall function of the body, mind and mood."
Positive Mood Shifts
As the mind processes our surroundings, it is distracted from hardship, notes Dr. Junglas. "This helps distract the mind away from our emotional feelings, and can improve the state of wellbeing without having had any change in our stressors," he adds, noting that what we do while we are outside matters, too. "And what if one is cultivating a plant or tending to an animal as part of the outside activity? These simple satisfactions can also improve the mood."
How to Increase the Time You Spend Outside as You Age
As we get older, a variety of obstacles can get in the way of spending time outdoors: work schedules, childrearing, or physical ailments that make rough terrain or extreme temperatures unenjoyable. Working with a physical therapist to mitigate the effects of age-related ailments can help, says Dr. Junglas; so can investing in the right weatherproof gear, from sturdy raincoats to heated gloves, or creating areas of interest in your yard—like a bird feeder or butterfly garden—to make sitting outside more enjoyable. To ensure you're getting out there, work these moments into a routine. All good-for-you choices are easier when you do them consistently. "I tell my patients the body has about a 48-hour memory for routine," says Dr. Junglas. "If one can get outside a least every other day, it can become a habit that helps us feel good."
Be intentional, too. Paying attention to the world around you can make even your daily walk to the mailbox or your morning commute more beneficial. "Time does not have to be congruous if it is made deliberate," notes Dr. Junglas. "Take a moment to look around and scope out your surroundings." Lastly, make it your own. You don't have to love hiking or birdwatching or picnicking; find your own type of outside joy. "Purpose-driven lives sometimes do not leave room for the subtle satisfaction found in an outdoor stroll in the park," says Dr. Junglas. "Satisfaction may come from walking, sitting, chatting, or watching in any location! To know what you like, you might need to try a few things out, like a walk in the park, planting a flower, walking, or playing with a pet or child. Sitting somewhere for a few minutes, looking, listening, and absorbing some of the surroundings may help you understand the subtleties that improve your well-being."