Active Aging: Outdoor Exercise Benefits Body and Mind

Growing older doesn’t have to mean becoming less active. Spring is the perfect time to get outside and get moving to give both your body and your mind a boost, according to Cardinal Innovations Healthcare’s physical and mental health experts.
“Your health will improve physiologically and psychologically when you become more active,” said Cardinal Innovations Integrated Health Nurse Manager Julie Peterson, adding that research supports the idea of shifting from “healthy aging” to “active aging.”
“We’re trying to think differently about that,” she said.
Physical activity positively impacts social outcomes and provides chronic disease prevention and risk reduction. It lowers the risk of some cancers like colon and breast cancer. It helps with weight control, cardiovascular health and reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome, which involves symptoms such as high blood pressure, high “bad” LDL cholesterol and high blood glucose levels.
But the benefits don’t stop there. Being active also improves cognitive function and psychological well-being, according to Britney Phifer and Aubry Hildebrandt, both licensed marriage and family therapists who work for Cardinal Innovations. Hildebrandt is an Integrated Care Strategist and Phifer is a Clinical Analyst.
As your physical health improves, so will your psychological wellbeing. You’ll be more likely to retain independence longer and manage health issues with greater success, both of which improve “mood, outlook, and self-esteem.”
Because physical activity often involves getting out and about, it also increases the likelihood of interacting with others socially. In addition to socializing being enjoyable for many, it is also mentally stimulating and good for the brain, Hildebrandt said. Being part of a walking group, for example, will give you that social interaction and physical activity, which can help boost your mental and physical wellbeing.
Sometimes not getting up and moving can become a negative cycle. “You don’t feel well so you don’t want to move. But if you don’t move, you’ll feel worse,” Hildebrandt said. “There’s a cycle. You can turn that cycle around.” To begin to break this cycle and build motivation, Hildebrandt recommended that individuals commit to an activity that they will do each day.
“One way to think about it is this idea of behavioral activation,” she said. “If we wait until we feel like doing something, we’re probably not going to do start doing it.”  But if you decide that you can commit to one activity and do it regardless of how much you don’t feel like doing it, then it can become a positive habit. “For example, saying to yourself, ‘I’ll make sure I walk downstairs in my apartment building to get my mail today. Or maybe I’ll commit to walking my dog today’,” Hildebrandt said. “People will eventually start feeling some good effects of the activity and it will naturally become a habit. Getting started is the hardest part.”  Hildebrandt noted that it is important to check with your physician about any physical limitations and exercise contraindications.
“What is in motion tends to stay in motion and what is sedentary tends to stay sedentary,” Phifer added.
Phifer also stated that bringing a friend can help, too, when you’re getting started. “We want to encourage others to take advantage of all the positive effects mentioned previously: be active outside and hopefully be active with a friend,” Phifer said. “There’s something to be said about committing to something. If you can, do something that brings you pleasure or joy. Don’t commit to something you hate. If you commit to it with a friend, you will have greater accountability to that activity because you will also be showing up for a friend, as well.”
Exercise can also be therapeutic. “For those experiencing depressive symptoms, this can be a really helpful addition to psychotherapy and medication,” she said. “Physical movement helps with body image, mood and quality of life. If you are exercising, you are more likely to be out and about and engaging with others, which also helps interrupt the isolation depression cycle.” Depression is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. But being physically active can lower the risk of developing these conditions while improving mood, body image, quality of life and providing coping strategies.
Phifer and Hildebrandt emphasized that people with severe depression should not consider physical activity a standalone treatment, but rather as a supplement to other mental health treatments such as therapy or medication management.
Peterson stresses that the best plan is to start slow. “Make sure you don’t jump into something. Be cognizant of what your body is telling you,” Peterson said. “The risk of having a heart attack while exercising is low, but if you go from zero to 80 in no time flat, the risk does increase. So, ease into new activities over a period of time, gradually increasing length of time and rigor so your body is ready to respond to each new challenge.”
Steps you can take to improve your activity and wellness:
  • Stick to the basics: Stick to moderate, non-vigorous activities such as walking, swimming, gardening or dancing. Try to get five sessions of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each week.
  • Start slow: Moderate-intensity activity like brisk walking is safe for most people. It’s good to be aware of the chronic conditions one has and to talk to a doctor about it, Hildebrandt said. It’s important to not go from not exercising at all to exercising vigorously, she said.
  • Improving balance: Tai Chi is great for practicing mental focus as well as physiological control and balance. This helps with coordination and mental agility. Any activity that helps build balance can improve falling risk. Consider trying other exercises that improve balance include dancing and cycling (consider using a stationary bike to start) to help reduce the likelihood of falls.
  • Take it outside: Older adults engaging in physical activity outdoors have improved physical functioning, less fear of falling and fewer depressive symptoms. Additionally, those that exercised outdoors did so for longer periods of time and had higher Vitamin D levels, leading to improved bone health and functional health benefits. Research has shown that higher Vitamin D levels is also correlated to a lower risk of depression and improved overall mental health and mood.
  • Try resistance training: Older adults who do resistance training (such as lifting free weights or using exercise bands) have been shown to improve their performance on measures of reasoning (when compared to stretching/toning exercise)
  • Work physical activity into the hobbies you enjoy: Taking the dog for a walk or gardening count as moderate physical activities.
  • Plant a garden: Gardening can be a great way to both get outdoors and engage in the recommended 30 minutes of daily physical activity. Gardening has been shown to promote overall physical health as well as emotional well-being.
  • Bring a friend: Choose something you enjoy and do it with a friend. If you are engaged in an activity that you like, you will be more willing to participate in it more often. Additionally, bringing a friend along will promote social interactions (which has great effects on the mind and body as well), and will help keep you on track.

Note: Always consult your physician or other healthcare professional before starting any fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs.
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