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Seniors Can Benefit from Outdoor Recreation

December 19, 2023—As I approach 67 years of age, I’ve been thinking about ways to maintain my health so I can avoid needing hospital care and be able to continue participating in the outdoor activities I enjoy: paddling, camping, cycling, wildlife photography, and hiking. While I don’t consider myself quite yet a senior, even though in the United States you’re considered a senior at age 62, Father Time is pushing me closer and closer to that time when I really am a senior and feel the effects of age slowing me down. I already feel some of it after spending a night sleeping in a tent. Right now, I still have the energy of many younger than my age.


Outdoor recreation is any leisure activity that takes place in a natural setting that benefits a person’s mental, physical, or spiritual health. We often think about boating, camping, hiking, skiing, swimming, walking, etc. when talking about outdoor recreation. However, other outdoor activities such as painting landscapes if done outdoors, gardening, wildlife and landscape photography, picnicking, and other similar endeavors also qualify as outdoor recreation.


What isn’t considered outdoor recreation are sports like tennis, golf, baseball, soccer, and such, because these are less leisurely and more competitive. While cycling is considered outdoor recreation, competitive cycling is not. That’s not to say any of these activities won’t benefit seniors physically and even to some degree mentally through the release of endorphins. However, outdoor sports are less likely to benefit seniors spiritually or allow them to interact and commune with the natural elements around them, which is the main purpose of outdoor recreation. And let’s face it, many of these sports clearly aren’t well suited for elderly people.


Now that I’ve outlined what constitutes outdoor recreation, how can it benefit seniors?

Many seniors stay active through outdoor activities like walking and swimming, and studies show doing so improves their overall health and longevity. Just last weekend while cycling along Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland, Oregon, I came upon an elderly man out jogging. He had to be in his late eighties. He wasn’t jogging fast, but he was jogging, and that’s the point. He was taking steps to remain healthy.


Outdoor recreation can help lower depression and feelings of isolation, reduce cognitive impairment, lower stress, and improve physical movement in seniors (Kerr et. al, 2012; Meadow Ridge, n.d.; Referah, n.d.; West Hartford Health & Rehabilitation Center, 2022). These are mental and physical conditions that often afflict seniors, especially those living on their own.


Research conducted on adults living in continuing care facilities showed that seniors who spend 30 minutes or more per day outdoors in nature or involved in physical activity were likely to have fewer depressive symptoms than those who didn’t. They were likely to report a higher quality of life and experience less fear of falling. Seniors who spent 30 minutes or more walking were faster than those who weren’t physically active. Moreover, results showed that seniors who were both physically active and spent time outdoors 30 minutes or more benefitted the most when compared to inactive seniors or those who simply spent time outdoors or participated in a physical activity over the same amount of time (Kerr et al, 2012). The bottom line from the research is that spending time outdoors in nature participating in some form of physical activity greatly benefits seniors.


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