Heath and wellness has been a common thread throughout my blogs and I am continuing to stitch with that thread again this month. So many things could distract me – the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant melt downs in Japan followed by yet additional earthquakes occurring again this week. Add to that the near melt down of our government operations as negotiations continued right up to the last minute to determine whether there would be a government-wide shut down reminiscent of the shut downs in 1995-96. So far it appears that government offices will be open for business at least for now although debates on the budget will continue. Even with all that excitement I’ll return to my health and wellness theme.
My focus this month is on the growing number of retirees and other members of the baby boomer generation who were born between 1946 and 1964. Baby boomers started turning 65 this year and their growing ranks are causing concern partly because of the impact they will have on Medicare. This is the fastest growing age group made up of around 39 million Americans, a number that will increase to 71 million by 2030. According to the American Hospital Association 60 percent of these folks will experience more than 1 chronic condition by 2030. These conditions include diabetes, arthritis, congestive heart failure and dementia. Chronic conditions are also the leading cause of death for older adults.
Last fall I went to a meeting of our local AARP Chapter. The Alaska State Director and the AARP National President were speakers. They each addressed health care and the need to get run away health care costs under control. As they fielded questions from a very interested audience I pondered why no one was talking about the things each one of us can do to improve our own health and the preventative steps we can take to avoid being part of that 60 percent. It was puzzling to me because there is so much each of us can do to improve and insure (to a certain degree) our own health and wellbeing with many ideas showing up in the AARP magazine.
AARP The Magazine arrives in my post office box every other month with an extensive health section that incorporates suggestions for maintaining and improving mental and physical health. Examples from September/October 2010 include articles on “green exercise”, fitness, maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and immune system health. I’m a regular reader and always save – and share – these articles even after the rest of the magazine has gone to the recycle bin.
I didn’t speak up but shortly after the meeting I contacted Juneau Chapter President to volunteer to present a session at AARP Day, which will take place at the end of April. There will be sessions on financial planning, tax law changes, estate planning, and Medicare, as well as cooking, stress reduction, and computer basics, and I’ll be there to talk about how being active outdoors can contribute to health and well-being.
I plan to highlight research from a study at the University of Essex in England that found that just five minutes a day of “green exercise” could boost your mood and self-esteem and reduce odds of depression and other psychological conditions. Green exercise can include gardening, fishing, walking, cycling – basically being active outdoors in a natural setting. In addition to the benefits of vitamin D from the sun (if you live where you have sun) other benefits include enhanced cognitive functioning and increased compassion, and positive effects on blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress. Some studies have also documented links between spending time in nature and longevity and decreased risk of mental illness.
Other research has found that walking can reduce diabetes incidence and lower mortality for those who have diabetes. One death per year may be preventable for every 61 people who walk at least 2 hours a week. While preventing one death per year may not seem like much I’m sure most of us know people with diabetes and it would make me happy if the diabetics that I know could avoid being a casualty of the disease…. and 2 hours a week is less than twenty minutes a day. Diabetes often leads to the need for dialysis treatments that are not only inconvenient for the patient but also very expensive for society. In June 2006, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that nearly 22% of people 65 or older had diabetes with cases expected to increase 336 % over the next 50 years. If current trends continue one in three Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes and this is not just a problem in the United States. The World Health Organization predicts that diabetes will rise 50 percent in the next decade with diabetes deaths doubling in the next ten years. It is frustrating that effective preventive measures are available through lifestyle changes but not everyone takes advantage of them.
In addition to being a preventative for diabetes, green exercise, specifically walking in forests and other natural settings has been shown to reduce stress, improve moods, reduce anger and aggressiveness and increase overall happiness (see Rural Connections – Healthy Communities Issue, Volume 5, Issue 1 – 2.3MB PDF). Walking is an especially good activity because, in addition to having less impact on your joints than running, if you swing your arms as most of us do, walking is a bilateral activity—meaning it allows us to access the whole brain. This makes it a very grounding activity that can result in increased creativity and healthy processing of emotions. As I mentioned in my article in Rural Connections (linked above) studies of “forest bathing” in Japan – short leisurely visits to a forest – increased vigor, decreased anxiety, depression, anger, may decrease psychosocial stress related diseases, and increased levels of a cell that releases anticancer proteins in the blood that work to prevent cancer generation and development.
So, you’ve been treated to a preview of my session at AARP Day in Juneau. In addition to sharing research findings I’ll be asking participants what kinds of outdoor activities they enjoy, what experiences they can share about the benefits they observe, and what we can do locally to encourage more people to engage in outdoor activities. What do people find as barriers or impediments to getting outdoors for a walk? I know for me it is mostly making time to head outdoors. In fact, I think it is time for me to head out right now!
Linda Kruger is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau, Alaska.