Natural Environment Linked to Physical Activity of Elderly


Features of a natural environment in the home neighbourhood associated with physical activity of older people, according to a new study. The study findings indicated that higher habitat diversity within natural areas correlates with higher PA among older people without walking difficulties and the presence of water correlates with higher PA among those with walking difficulties.

Regular physical activity (PA), especially outdoors, positively affects health throughout the life course. Even moderately active compared to sedentary behaviour decreases the relative risk of mortality. Walking outdoors improves the physical capability of older people, including those reporting difficulties in walking.

Water fronts are favorable areas for outdoor mobility of older people experiencing walking difficulties. When a person's walking capability is good, versatile natural areas seem to attract older people to outdoor mobility. The aim was to study the correspondence between the objective and perceived environment and to assess their associations with physical activity (PA) in older people.

For the study 848 community-dwelling older people aged 75-90 years, who were living in the municipalities of Jyväskylä and Muurame in Central Finland, were interviewed. The participants were divided into two groups based on reported difficulties in walking 500 meters. The environmental features were defined within 500m and 1,000m distance from participants' homes using geographical information system.

The study results show that older people experiencing walking difficulties are more likely to be physically active when water areas are present and land use is more diverse in their neighbourhood environment, compared to peers living in neighbourhoods without such features. Older people without walking difficulties are more likely to be physically active when the habitat in natural areas is more versatile.

Thus with declining walking capacity, environmental features that attract to outdoor mobility may change. Overall, regardless of walking difficulties, participants living in a neighbourhood with water areas and diverse terrain mostly perceive nature as a facilitator for outdoor mobility. Based on these results, it would be beneficial to take into consideration the outdoor mobility possibilities of elderlies when planning the environment.

Based on the findings, the associations between objectively assessed features of the natural environment and PA in older people are highly dependent on functional capabilities. As facilitators for PA, the presence of water was especially important for older people with difficulties in walking and higher habitat diversity within large natural areas for those without difficulties in walking. There is a need to study the mechanisms underlying PA behavior, such as the attention directed to scenery and functional capabilities in greater detail.