Many studies have argued that spending time in nature provides numerous psychological, emotional, and physical benefits. Now, by examining the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of a group of elders (people over 65) who regularly spent time in a nature area, an international team of scientists has found that fostering social connections around nature-based activities may improve health and quality of life.
In Japan, the term “shinrin-yoku,” or “forest bathing” refers to spending time in nature while engaging all of one’s senses. For elders who encounter difficulties in hiking over difficult trails, forest bathing could be an enjoyable and safe alternative to spend time in nature. In fact, this activity has become increasingly popular among older adults not only in Japan, China, and Taiwan, where this practice originated, but also more recently in the United States.
Between April and June 2022, the scientists surveyed a cohort of 292 older visitors to the Xitou Nature Education Area, a natural preserve in Taiwan. The participants – who were over 65 and visited the park at least once a week – were asked a variety of questions, such as whether they felt supported by others, how much they thought about their futures, and how much purpose they felt their lives had. The analysis revealed that those who discussed their experiences in nature with others had a greater sense of attachment to forest bathing and a stronger sense of purpose in life – factors which, according to previous research – are associated to better physical and mental health and higher quality of life.
These findings could help leisure-service providers working in community recreation departments or retirement villages facilitate leisure activities for the elderly. “Elders can access community and state parks where it is safe for them to spend time in nature: places with walkable paths and convenient, accessible parking, are helpful,” said study co-author John Dattilo, a professor of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management at the Pennsylvania State University.
“Better yet, leisure-service providers could arrange transportation and then afterwards facilitate social interactions among participants. Enabling people to get out into nature to experience their surroundings is one aspect of forest bathing. Part of what we found is the linkage between positive social relationships and spending time in nature. So, if leisure-service providers create opportunities for elders to return from an experience, meet over a warm beverage and talk about their experiences, there will be value in these connections for people’s sense of purpose.”
“Forest bathing seems to connect people to the moment and the world. When elders use that same experience to develop social connections and support, they may experience a broad range of benefits associated with physiological functioning as well as cognitive health. These are associations, not cause and effect, but the potential consequences are exciting to consider,” concluded lead author Liang-Chih Chang, a professor of Living Sciences at the National Open University in Taiwan.
The study is published in the journal Leisure Sciences.
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