We all know how good it feels to be outside in fresh air. But are there actual measurable health benefits we can achieve from our outdoor environments?
Scientists all around the world have begun to study the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits to what is now being called “vitamin G” or green space. This refers to activities performed in outdoor environments like taking short walks, gardening, exercising or engaging in relaxing activities. The results of this science may offer a unique perspective and value to seniors—especially those with cognitive difficulties.
Most of us accept the fact that daily exercise is important, but what difference does it make where we exercise? First, scientists have proven that the air indoors is two times more polluted than the air outdoors. Second, exercising indoors often exposes individuals to many distractions (e.g., laundry, email, dishes, treadmill covered with clothes, etc) which tends to undermine motivation and commitment to an exercise plan. Studies have found that when we are outdoors our minds are more relaxed and our bodies tend to breathe more efficiently. Nature brings about a certain peaceful atmosphere that makes exercising a pleasant and desired experience with minimal distractions. Moreover, the benefits tend to be realized fairly quickly within the first several minutes.
Research/Benefits of Vitamin “G”
Exercise Enhancement: Recent research has shown that exercising outdoors is associated with more efficient oxygen consumption allowing for better endurance training for athletes or simply improving exercise efficiencies. Studies have also revealed better endurance and stamina while exercising on a treadmill outside compared with those who exercised indoors.
British researchers from the University of Essex reviewed research from 10 prior studies involving 1,252 people and they concluded that even short periods of green exercise, as little as five minutes, were enough to make a positive difference on physical energy and mental well-being. In addition, motivation and commitment to an exercise plan was significantly greater for those who exercise in green space compared to those who exercised indoors.
Stress Management:In a Japanese study published earlier this year in the journal Public Health found scientific evidence of the mental and physical effects of activities performed in green space. The study found measurable benefits to the nervous system with notable reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of subjects when they performed activities in green space compared to the indoors.
Simply bringing nature into view or inside can also have a significant effect. In a study measuring psychophysiological stress through electromyography (EMG), electroencephalography (EEG), blood volume pulse (BVP), and state anxiety indicators, those who had a view of the outdoors from their window were less physiologically stressed than those without a window. Similarly, research conducted in a hospital setting revealed that patients who had a view of the outdoors or had plants in their hospital rooms tended to recover faster and experienced less pain compared to those with no plant material or window.
Improved Mental Health: Exercise and physical activity in general is beneficial to mental health. It decreases stress hormones and increases endorphins, which are the “feel good” chemicals naturally occurring in the brain. Moreover, exercise releases tension and physical stress in the body and sustains cardiovascular health. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter chemical in the brain thought to contribute to depression and anxiety symptoms when deficient, is also positively affected by exercise. Many individuals who exercise regularly report significant reduction in depressive symptoms. Recent research has shown that these mental health benefits are significantly enhanced when exercise occurs in green space.
The added benefit to exercising near water is significant with greater levels of relaxation; meditation and enhanced self-esteem have been reported. Further, being in green space exposes individuals to sunshine which has long been known improve mood by affecting the chemistry of the brain. Growing evidence from researchers in the United States, Scandinavia and Britain has shown that engaging in physical activities in green space reduces stress, improves depression, manages anger and contributes to an overall sense of well-being.
Cognitive Enhancements: Access to green areas appears to increase sensory and motor skills in both adults and children. Prolong exposure also has been shown to reduce the symptoms of attention deficit disorders.
During the course of a normal day we are bombarded with multiple distractors and stimulants that our mind has to forcibly push from awareness. In nature, the inhibitory centers of the brain do not have to work as hard to push out distractors rather the mind can take in the ever changing stimuli in nature that creates harmony and relaxation in the mind. This is particularly important for those with mild cognitive impairments or various stages of dementia.
How can we begin to increase our Vitamin G for seniors?
Senior communities should be strategically built and designed to increase the amount of natural light. Access to windows with a view of green elements should be maximized.
Whenever possible, activities should be performed near a window to view the outdoors and incorporate live plant materials into living space.
Adopt green prescriptions for your residents by “prescribing” time outdoors, brining nature into the building, etc. Remember, a more emotionally stable and physically healthier resident and employee costs the company less in healthcare costs, poor productivity and lost time from work.