At the Piñon Flats campground at Great Sand Dunes National Park you’ll find a spectrum of campers. Some are the young adults, childless and carefree. Their evening six-pack has no impact on their ability to hike a 13,000-foot peak the next day. Others are the young families, wrangling toddlers. They try to convince themselves it’s fun to sleep in a tent with tiny knees and elbows in their backs. Then there are the middle-aged. Some come with older kids, some without. They move at a relaxed pace. Typically, they sleep in trailers instead of tents and eat the best food.
There are plenty of tents and trailers - but few RVs - at Piñon Flats. This is because there are no hook-ups for water or waste here. Perhaps this explains the lack of campers of retirement age.
But there is a constant stream of the biggest RVs at the Visitor’s Center. Elderly couples eager to take in the remarkable sand dunes pilot many of these big rigs. More than once my daughter and I have run into some of these older folks on the hiking trails. This impresses me because our Texas lungs struggle to manage at the 9000 foot-plus elevation.
But whether they are able to climb the steep paths or navigate the dunes is unimportant. The important point is that they are outside. Research in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity showed that older adults who exercised outdoors at least weekly logged more minutes of physical activity than those who exercised only indoors.
A longitudinal study of 70-year-old adults in Jerusalem found better health in those who spent time outside daily. By age 77, they were less likely to complain of pain, sleep problems, urinary incontinence, or decline in activities of daily living. On the flip side, not going outside daily at age 70 was predictive of urinary incontinence, dependence in activities of daily living, and poor self-rated health by age 77.
Data from the 2008 Scottish Health Survey connects outdoor physical activity with lower risk for mental health issues. In fact, each additional use of a natural environment per week was associated with a 6 percent lower risk of poor mental health. This is important, as up to 15 percent of older adults have clinically significant depressive symptoms.
These results speak well for getting outdoors. The results may also come from associated factors, such as better sleep. A survey of over 250,000 adults showed that those who had access to outdoor amenities had fewer sleep disturbances. Poor sleep correlates with a variety of health issues. Think depression, weight gain, and diabetes.
Not everyone can buy an RV to visit the national parks. Not everyone wants to. But we can learn from those who do. Maybe you are fortunate enough to live near protected lands like national or state parks. You can get out in nature, soak up some Vitamin D and reap the benefits.
If not, your outdoor oasis might be your own backyard garden or a neighborhood walking path. It might even be your town’s shopping district. What’s important is to get outside regularly.
It’s nice to have science support this choice, and I was happy to find the excellent research that confirms the health benefits of outdoor time. But we’ve always known this. As American naturalist John Burroughs said one hundred years ago, “I go to Nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put together.” It’s still a good thing to do..
Amy Rogers MD is not a practicing physician and nothing written here should be taken as medical advice from either Amy or AssetBuilder. Medical decisions should be made with care in consultation with your health care provider.