Connecting Older Adults to the Outdoors: Benefits for Physical and Mental Health

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PENNSYLVANIA — The Miller Center for Recreation and Wellness in Lewisburg, Union County, recently played host to high-ranking officials, including Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn, Aging Secretary Jason Kavulich, and Acting Health Secretary Dr. Debra Bogen. The officials spoke about the immense benefits of connecting older adults to the outdoors and promoting outdoor activities for people of all ages. Research confirms what many people know intrinsically: that spending time in nature serves to enhance mental and physical wellbeing.

As part of that concerted effort to connect people to the outdoors, Governor Josh Shapiro highlighted in his budget address the many advantages of Pennsylvania’s state parks and outdoor recreation. By proposing investments that provide more opportunities to explore Pennsylvania’s natural environments – its parks, trails, and forests – the governor is offering residents and visitors alike the chance to capitalize on economic development opportunities and relish our natural resources.

“We are very aware of the barriers and challenges many older adults and those with disabilities experience with having access to the outdoors,” Secretary Dunn said. “The Shapiro Administration is committed to providing healthy, safe, and high-quality opportunities for older adults to get outside and enjoy the incredible benefits our natural spaces provide. Thank you to our partners in the Departments of Aging and Health for this work to help older Pennsylvanians find meaningful connections to nature.

The Shapiro Administration has created a toolkit designed to help older adults find meaningful connections to the outdoors and nature. This toolkit details why exposure to nature is important, provides guides for bringing nature indoors, low-cost facility adaptations for care and convalescent homes, ways to overcome access barriers, and more.

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“Social isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression and ultimately a decrease in health status. Older Adult Mental Health Awareness Day is an opportunity for us to highlight the importance of mental health to overall health and quality of life for older adults,” said Secretary Kavulich. “As an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys many of our incredible state parks, I encourage older Pennsylvanians to get out and enjoy the natural beauty of our Commonwealth, keeping in mind the benefits it will have on your well-being. I also urge any older adult who may need mental health supports or services to give their local Area Agency on Aging a call. A friendly voice is available to offer assistance for our seniors to live with the dignity and respect that they deserve.”

Regular activity in the physical environment can also prevent chronic disease and help people live longer. Outdoor recreation additionally often pairs with invaluable social interaction—a particularly important component of mental wellness following the era of social isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — which tremendously impacts older adults.

“Regardless of your age, spending times outdoors in green space is an important component of health. Fresh air and safe exposure to sunshine support the immune system and helps our bodies produce Vitamin D, a vital hormone.” said Dr. Bogen. “Whether you are outdoors for physical activity, to listen to the sounds of nature, or observe the sky or greenery, studies demonstrate the positive impact of spending time in nature on overall health and well-being.”

Research also shows that having access to greenspace lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, high blood pressure, and more. Simply exercising outdoors versus indoors has shown to improve mental well-being through feelings of revitalization, as well as increased energy and positive engagement with decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression.

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“The Miller Center for Recreation and Wellness, powered by local health systems Evangelical Community Hospital and Geisinger, is a 501(c)(3) community-based resource that aims to improve the overall health of the region through education, empowerment, and partnerships. Sports, fitness, and childcare operations are managed by the Lewisburg YMCA,” said Ryan McNally, director of The Miller Center & Community Health Initiatives for Evangelical Community Hospital. “The facility has nearly 100,000 square feet of usable space for health and wellness programming, including a fully equipped fitness center, four hardcourts, turf field, café, and clinical spaces. Given that we are adjacent to the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail, The Miller Center is uniquely situated to provide ease-of-access to both outdoor and indoor recreation.”

Each agency involved in the Thursday event is taking steps to strengthen the connection to older adults and the outdoors. In its 2020-2024 State Plan on Aging, the Department of Aging has identified a number of actions that align with establishing more meaningful connections between older adults and the outdoors, particularly when such activities can help reduce social isolation, grow volunteer networks, and strengthen partnerships at the community and regional levels to improve and expand services. As part of the Commonwealth’s 10-year master plan on aging and disabilities currently in development, the Department of Aging and DCNR will partner to prioritize and develop plans to make outdoor access and activities part of livable spaces for older adults in communities across Pennsylvania.

The Department of Health, in its 2022 State of the Health Plan, highlighted the essential health services that the outdoors and nature provides, stating “access to greenspace and outdoor recreation is needed for all, especially children and older adults, including those in long-term care, and benefits people physically, emotionally, and mentally.”

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DCNR’s implementation of the 2020-2024 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan entitled Recreation for All prioritizes safe and welcoming access for all while underscoring the connections between spending time in nature and health and wellness, including expanding ADA accessibility on public lands.

Check DCNR’s Calendar of Events for happenings on public lands.

For the latest news on everything happening in Chester County and the surrounding area, be sure to follow MyChesCo on Google News.