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Getting Outside for Your Health

Recent research has shown that being in nature has very real benefits for physical and emotional health. But the average American spends as much as 90 percent of their time indoors, so few of us experience the benefits of time outside. And family caregivers looking after a homebound loved one may find it especially difficult to get outside.

Benefits of Time Outside

Spending some time outside is rejuvenating, mentally and physically, for young and old alike. Take advantage of the health benefits one can experience from spending more of the day outside:

Vitamin D

Exposure to sunlight increases the body’s ability to make and use vitamin D, a vitamin that many of us lack in sufficient amounts. Vitamin D has been shown to help with a variety of ailments from depression to osteoporosis to cardiac disease. While people should be careful not to spend extended periods outside without sunscreen or protective clothing, short periods in direct sunlight can help improve levels of this important vitamin.

Strength

A daily walk around the block can allow you to experience the benefits of exercise. Physical activity improves muscle strength, which improves balance and lowers your risk for falls. Exercise can also help control or reduce pain, improve your ability to fall asleep, and alleviate depression symptoms.

Mood

Natural light tends to elevate mood. Many studies have shown that the closer you live to nature, the healthier you’re likely to be. People who lived within a mile or so of a park or a wooded area experienced less anxiety and depression than those who lived farther away from green space. It seems that being in nature, or even close to it, can help relieve some of the stresses of modern life.

Social contact

Homebound individuals often have less contact with other people, and feelings of isolation can lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Spending time outside can help to reduce loneliness. Taking time to sit on your front stoop or porch, or on a nearby park bench, can increase feelings of community connections and re-engage a person with the pulse of their neighborhood.

Ideas for Activities

Though finding opportunities to spend time in nature for New Yorkers can often be difficult, numerous local parks offer a free way to escape the urban jungle. If you’re a family caregiver in charge of someone who resists going outside or who can’t easily get out, try these ideas to tempt your unwilling loved one into experiencing the benefits of time spent outdoors, or simply to rejuvenate your own spirits:

  • Carry two lawn chairs in your car and any time you have a few minutes, set them up and enjoy the weather. If getting into a lawn chair is too difficult for your loved one, park in the shade and open the doors and windows of the car, allowing the summer breezes in.
  • Set up your outdoor space. If you have a patio, deck or terrace, put sturdy chairs there for you and your loved one, and take the time to go out. You and your family member will both enjoy the change of pace.
  • If you live in an apartment with no access to outdoor space, open a sunny window and sit nearby to enjoy the benefits from inside.
  • Bring an indoor pursuit outside. If the reluctant caree enjoys puzzles, board games, or cards, set up a table on a porch or stoop and start playing. Books are another easily portable choice—your loved one can relax with a favorite novel, or it could be fun to take turns reading aloud.
  • Tossing a line in the water can be a wonderful way to unwind, whether you catch anything or not. Many piers and boats are wheelchair accessible, so mobility needn’t be a problem if you do your homework first. Bonus: Most municipalities offer free or reduced-price licenses to folks over 65.
  • Bird watching doesn’t have to include hiking or exotic travel. Just having a bird feeder in the yard can give your loved one a reason to go outside to check on feathered friends.
  • People watching is a great way to get engaged. Whether from a park bench, at a mall, or sitting on a front stoop, observing fellow humans can be very entertaining. Factor in the potential to see an old friend or neighbor or strike up conversation with a genial stranger, and you have a recipe for success.
  • If your family member can be left alone for a few minutes, use that time to take a quick walk outside. Even five minutes of exercising outside has been shown to lift mood through exposure to green spaces. Plus, you’ll be building your heart muscle!
  • If your family member can’t be left alone, then here’s your chance to cash in on your friends’ offers to help. Ask them to mind your loved one for a few minutes and get yourself outside.
  • When you’re caring for someone who spends a lot of time indoors or whose routine doesn’t vary much, a picnic can be a welcome change for both of you. A nearby park can make your picnic even more festive, but a simple bag lunch in the backyard can be just as satisfying.

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