Everyday Access to Nature Promotes Well-Being As We Age

Natural environments promote psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being.

Posted Jul 13, 2015

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Do you have easy access to "green" spaces with trees or "blue" spaces, which are environments near some type of water? Do you ever crave being closer to the water or other natural environments? If so, you should follow these instincts whether you live in the city or in the country.

New research shows that spending time in nature is therapeutic for your psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being—especially as you get older.

I was born in Manhattan, which can seem like a concrete jungle in many ways. Fortunately, as I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in Central Park and my family had a country house in the Berkshires near a stream. My love for nature was embedded into my biology and psyche from an early age. 

As an ultra-endurance athlete, I was able to utilize the power of nature as a source of energy that came from without, but filled every cell within my body and gave me the inner force to propel my body forward. Whenever I was running, biking, and swimming long distances, my body felt like a conduit to the power held in the surrounding natural environment.

As a native New Yorker, I did most of my training for Ironman triathlons in Central Park and along the waterways surrounding Manhattan. I describe my relationship to these outdoor spaces on pp. 2-3 of The Athlete's Way

I came up with the title The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss on a summer afternoon as I was biking in Central Park. This June day felt like the first day of summer—everyone was exuding so much energy and love of life . . . walking, biking, running, skating, skateboarding, horseback riding. I felt that I was with old friends, even though we were technically strangers. The energy was contagious and we were all feeding off one another's happiness

The light was perfect that day in Central Park. I looked around and all that caught my eye was this very specific quality of Manhattan summer light reflecting off different shades of skin. To be with these fellow New Yorkers, pushing against our own limits, together against the deep green trees, clear blue skies, and huge skyscrapers was Utopia. The Manhattan skyline and the energy of human possibility collided, as they often do on the roadways and bridle paths of the park. 

Connecting to the green and blue spaces around me as an athlete made me feel as if I was tapped into an infinite source of energy. Ultraendurance athletics was always an ecstatic process and mystical experience for me. Harnessing the power of nature allowed me to reach the finish line of multiple Triple Ironman triathlons, the Badwater Ultramarathon, and every race I ever won. As a retired athlete turned writer, I tap into the power of nature in more subdued, but ever-inspiring, ways these days.

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Over the years, I've written a few Psychology Today blog posts about the physical, psychological, creative, and spiritual benefits of spending time in Nature. Most recently, I wrote a blog post titled, "The Power of Awe: A Sense of Wonder Promotes Loving-Kindness," based on a study which found being surrounded by something greater than oneself promotes prosocial behavior. 

A new study conducted by University of Minnesota graduate student, Jessica M. Finlay, along with a team in Vancouver, B.C., shows that spending time in natural environments is especially beneficial for healthy aging and well-being for seniors. As I've gotten older, my relationship to nature has evolved. I see my ongoing connection to nature as fundamental to aging gracefully. 

The July 2015 study, "Therapeutic Landscapes and Wellbeing in Later Life: Impacts of Blue and Green Spaces for Older Adults," was published in the journal Health & Place. In this post, I've included a bunch of snapshots I took with my phone of some seascapes and landscapes that had a "therapeutic" impact on me recently. 

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

For this new study, the researchers interviewed adults aged 65-86 years who lived in Vancouver, B.C. All study participants were considered low-income, came from 8 different self-identified racial and ethnic groups, and had experienced a range of chronic conditions and health concerns.

Throughout the study, green and blue spaces were found to promote feelings of renewal, restoration, and spiritual connectedness. These environments also provided a space for multi-generational social interactions and engagement, including planned activities with friends and families, and impromptu gatherings with neighbors. 

In a press release, lead author Jessica Finlay described the study saying, 

We zoomed in to everyday life for seniors between the ages of 65 and 86. We discovered how a relatively mundane experience, such as hearing the sound of water or a bee buzzing among flowers, can have a tremendous impact on overall health. Accessibility to everyday green and blue spaces encourages seniors to simply get out the door. This in turn motivates them to be active physically, spiritually and socially, which can offset chronic illness, disability and isolation.

The researchers recommend that when designing public spaces public health and urban development strategies should utilize nature to promote well-being for older adults by incorporating blue and green features, such as a koi pond or a bench with a view of flowers.

Reading this study reminded me of the public health benefits of the green and blue spaces surrounding my apartment complex in New York City. Stuyvesant Town is a "super block" on the East Side of Manhattan that is cut off from commuter traffic and the chaotic hustle and bustle of the city. 'Stuy Town' has hundreds of sycamore trees that line pedestrian walkways built around a central fountain that is a congregation point for people of all ages. In many ways, it's a textbook example of urban design that incorporates blue and green spaces. 

Connection to Nature Serves a Biological Need

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

The researchers found that younger generations tend to use green and blue spaces more to escape and rejuvenate from their busy work life, but that older participants in the study used nature to stay active physically, spiritually, and remain socially connected in their later years.

Many people in the study actually overcame barriers due to chronic illness, disability, and progressing old age because of their drive to connect regularly with green and blue community spaces. Our urge to connect to nature makes sense—especially when you consider the importance of our circadian clock, which relies on natural light to fine-tune daily circadian rhythms. 

The researchers emphasize that natural environments enable older adults to uphold daily structure during retirement and provide opportunities for a variety of activities outside the home. This is important to a person's quality of later life. The option to spend time in nature promotes mobility and physical activity, and can decrease the risk of boredom, loneliness, and isolation.  

Three Tips for Healthier Aging by Finlay

  1. Focus on your overall well-being: mental and social health are just as important as physical health when aging.
  2. Get out the door regularly, even if it's just to the end of the block and back.
  3. Prioritize everyday contact with nature—whether it's sitting in a park, listening to a water fountain, or looking at potted plants on a windowsill.

Being near water was found to be particularly beneficial to a person's well-being. Access to water is especially beneficial if someone can use it to swim or perform non-weight bearing physical activity and physiotherapy. In general, the researchers found that waterfront areas promote spiritual connectedness and were relaxing environments to decompress and escape the pressure of day-to-day life.

Conclusion: Making Nature Accesible Is Important for Well-Being at Any Age

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Hopefully, these findings will inspire people of all ages and walks of life to fortify their connection to nature. In a digital age, it's more imporant than ever that we unplug from our electronic devices and connect with nature, natural light, and our circadian rhythms. Finlay summarized the findings of her study in a press release saying, 

While our research may seem intuitive, it creates conversations on how to build communities that serve people across their entire lifetime. We don't just need a playground for children, we also need sheltered benches for the grandparents to watch them. This research is more than anecdotal; it gives credence to some small but significant elements of everyday later life. Hopefully it will help urban planners and developers build communities that span a lifetime.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts: 

© Christopher Bergland 2015. All rights reserved.

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