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The Outdoor Room: A Rx for wellness


By Jack Carman, FASLA, RLA and Nancy Carman, MA, CMC / Blueprints for Senior Living newsletter, October 2016

Exploring nature at Buttermilk Falls in Ithaca, New York / PHOTO: Design for Generations, LLC

Exploring nature at Buttermilk Falls in Ithaca, New York / PHOTO: Design for Generations, LLC

It is a well-known fact that spending time outside in nature is good for us. Instinctively we have always known this. We heard it from our parents when we were growing up, and we tried to escape whenever we could to play outside. It is only lately that research has come to light that validates what we inherently know. All the better: Because sometimes we just need to see the facts to motivate us. The evidence is a clear message that it is important to maintain a youthful connection to nature as we mature. Nature is synonymous for a wellness prescription regardless of our age.

Cornell University in Ithaca, NY now offers a freshman course, “Take it Outside.” The course focuses on students going outside and exploring the gorges and other green spaces around the campus. Horticulture professor, Don Rakow believes that “it simply makes sense to use the environment that is naturally available to us to better our own health.” These benefits include decreasing depression, helping to reduce anxiety and offering a fresh perspective for students as well as faculty.

Taking walks outside in the garden, the neighborhood, or better yet in the park, will result in better health. Dr. Robert Sallis, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Center in California has prescribed exercise for his patients for over 25 years. “If I could get them to do it (exercise on a regular basis, even just walking, anything that got their heart rates up a bit) I would see dramatic improvements in their chronic disease.” And this applies to older adults, as well!  Weight bearing exercises improve bone density. A study of a group of nurses found that simply walking a total of four hours a week reduced their risk of a hip fracture by 41%.

Physicians in England are encouraging patients to work in the garden. Outdoor areas are turned into gardens so patients can grow fruits and vegetables. Brockwell Park Surgery in South London has partnered with Lambeth GP Food Co-operative to grow more local produce. A lot of the patients are older adults who many times are socially isolated. Those who experience prolonged loneliness are at an increased risk of dying sooner than those who have regular socialization. According to Ed Rosen, director of the program, “It creates the opportunity for breaking down barriers between clinical staff and patients because they’re all going out and getting their hands dirty and growing food together.”

Speaking of getting your hands dirty, certain bacteria (Mycobacterium vaccae) that are found in the soil can activate specific neurons in the brain to produce serotonin. This is the chemical that regulates mood. According to a study by the University of Bristol and colleagues at University College London, this soil bacteria can help to reduce depression and make us feel better, maybe for as long as three weeks. So, activities, such as gardening, can have a positive effect on our mood and on our mental health overall. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!

Time Magazine in a recent article, “The New Science of Exercise” highlighted studies pointing to exercise as a way to prevent or delay the onset of dementia. Scientists are studying how exercise alters the way the brain functions. The research is beginning to show that exercise can improve blood flow to the brain, which in turn increases the growth of new blood vessels and brain cells. According to Dr. Marcus Bamman, an exercise physiologist, “Exercise is regenerative medicine – restoring and repairing and basically fixing things that are broken.”

Walking paths that enable older adults to spend time in nature / PHOTO: Design for Generations, LLC

Walking paths that enable older adults to spend time in nature / PHOTO: Design for Generations, LLC

A study conducted by Gregory Bratman, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, has shown that walks in the park can sooth the mind and positively alter mental health. The results of the research indicate that people who walk through a lush, green natural environment are “more attentive and happier.”

Walking outside in nature keeps us focused on the world around us. Watching trees change with the season maintains our connection to the larger world. “Trees are linked to our emotions…they provide smells, sights and touch and change over the year…that cycle of life can be very meaningful for us”, says Dr. Miles Richardson, a nature connection psychologist who has conducted surveys with 2,000 people.

Roger Ulrich, Ph.D., Texas A&M University has described nature as a ‘Positive Distraction.’ Nature has the ability of taking our mind off of our ills. People who spend time outside, in a garden, walking in a park or being part of some form of the natural environment, can easily get ‘lost’ in nature. Nature offers a quiet fascination that cannot be replicated by electronic devices or other man-made means. It accepts us for who we are. That is why it is so important that we provide the opportunity for people to maintain this connection to the natural world as they age– for their health and quality of life.

jackheadshotJack Carman, FASLA, RLA, president of Design for Generations LLC, is a Landscape Architect with over 20 years of experience in the analysis, planning, design and management of outdoor spaces. As a design consultant, Jack has specialized in creating therapeutic exterior environments for senior communities and healthcare facilities.

nancy-carman-photoNancy Carman, MA, CMC is the Manager of SeniorWise Care Management, a Geriatric Care Management program. She is a master’s prepared Gerontologist from the University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida and is a certified Geriatric Care Manager.

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