If you’re old enough to remember the days when kids were told to head outdoors and play until dinner, then you’ve clocked some years.
In past generations, summertime, particularly for children in small towns, meant full days of outside adventure. Children ran around their neighborhood teaming up with other kids for activities without adult supervision. And often, after suppertime they went out and played some more until dark.
After full days outside, children came home tired and ready to rest. Their skin and hair were sundrenched, their lungs cleansed with fresh air, and their bodies a bit stronger after hours of activity.
If you remember those times you are lucky to have had the foundation of outside fun. Today, both children and adults spend more time than ever inside in front of screens and in hermitically sealed environments distant from the natural world.
And for seniors, this retreat is more problematic due to increased health issues that keep the outside world at bay.
If you find yourself feeling sluggish and a bit low in your older years, it could be (at least in part) that you don’t get enough of nature anymore. The good news is that the solution is right outside your front door. With small and actionable steps and a bit of knowledge, you can improve your energy, state of mind, and spirit by setting aside time to once again commune with nature.
Nature Deficit Disorder: It’s A Real Thing
Per a report featured in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, “adults in the U.S. spend only about 2% of their time outdoors.” Put another way, the average adult spends only 33 minutes per week outside.
The deficit hits young and old alike and the cause is largely technology. We all spend unparalleled time in front of screens at home. In the youngest generation the numbers are show-stopping: stats reported by OSF Healthcare reveal that children ages eight to ten spend an average of six hours per day watching tablets, phones, and TVs (with the number going up for each age group from there).
Seniors are impacted with a sedate indoor imbalance as well. Per the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, seniors surveyed reported spending most of their time at home, up to 72%. And the remaining time spent at other indoor errands and appointments rather than outside.
We are all suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD), a condition that is wreaking havoc with our internal settings, sleep patterns, emotional wellbeing, and physical health. You won’t find NDD listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, but there is a lot of common sense to the concept that as beings of the earth we’ve lost touch with nature.
Coined by American author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods, NDD is defined as “health and behavioral issues resulting from less time outdoors that encapsulates the human condition at a time when technology and being inside (at a desk or on the couch) dominate our lifestyles.”
The Benefits of Nature for Seniors
No doubt that aging comes with challenges and change. Sometimes, as with all difficult transitions, the knee-jerk response is to pull inward and stay indoors. It turns out that this reaction can work to worsen our ails of aging.
Eastern and natural practitioners have long understood the value of contact with nature. And today, even traditional medicine is returning to the basics and acknowledging the importance of natural therapy.
Per Scientific Reports one survey study found that adults who spent 120 minutes a week in nature enjoyed an improved feeling of good health and wellbeing. And where the feeling is, the behavior is likely to follow. Feeling rejuvenated leads to making better choices and yields improved outcomes such as lowering the likelihood of depression.
The study also suggests that “living in greener urban areas is associated with lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalizations, mental distress, and ultimately mortality.”
Less tested theories such as “grounding therapy” (which involves doing activities that “ground” or electrically reconnect you to the earth) are showing promise in small studies, too.
If the grounding idea seems a bit farfetched to you, just note that even access to seeing nature can lift your spirits. You’ve probably experienced this in moments when your mood was low and you stepped outside for a brief walk to clear your head.
Retirement communities are recognizing the impact of nature in architectural design as well. Residents enjoy rooms with a view, and shared spaces full of windows bring the world in on a regular basis. Seniors who can see the seasons, take in natural light, and watch birds and plants show an improved quality of life and cognitive health.
If you’re still not convinced that nature is good medicine, note these other benefits:
- Outdoor contact goes hand-in-hand with physical activity. Stepping outside will incite you to move. The adage “use it or lose it” kicks in when you engage with nature. Small steps may lead to a walk of some distance as you progress.
- Fresh air reduces risk of sickness. It turns out the environment indoors, especially in the winter months, is filled with concentrated levels of germs that have nowhere to go. Getting outside will break up your exposure and give your lungs a cleanse.
- Natural light helps you sleep better. As we age, we struggle to keep our brain on track as cellular activity changes and slows. While studies show that human touch via massage can help trigger the neurotransmitter serotonin, regular exposure to natural light keeps the brain’s on and off switches in sync as well. Per the CDC, the light/dark cycle of the sun has a powerful effect on the circadian clock regulating sleep and alertness.
Get Outdoors Fellow Earthlings
So much of today’s technology and ease of living indoors is a marvel. But all the focus on the inside has detached us from our connection to the outside.
It’s also nice to know you can do something so basic to help yourself feel better. Step into the breeze, catch some sun with your shades on, and take in the beauty of the seasons and the sky overhead. And if you feel really bold, take off your socks and shoes and nestle those toes in the grass. Remember, by earth’s timeline, you are still just a kid who should spend some time playing outdoors.