You are currently viewing The Healing Power of Nature: What Science Says About Aging Well

The Healing Power of Nature: What Science Says About Aging Well

Episode #107June 19, 2024


Have you ever felt rejuvenated after a day spent outdoors, perhaps gardening or simply enjoying a walk in the woods? Recently, nature has been my much needed therapy.


In today’s episode, I’ll share how my own journey into the world of gardening and nature began at a time when I needed it most—right as I turned 48 and was worn out from constant traveling and presenting. This personal experience opened my eyes to the potent benefits of connecting with nature. So, I dove into the scientific literature, and in this episode, I share…


Key Topics Discussed:

  • Personal Gardening Experience: I dive into my transformative journey into gardening after moving to Vermont, highlighting the deep personal and health benefits from tending to plants.
  • Importance of Forest Bathing: Learn about the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing, and its proven effects on reducing stress, improving heart health, and enhancing overall well-being.
  • Scientific Evidence on Nature’s Benefits: Explore the latest research from a 2024 meta-analysis that reviews various nature-based interventions and their impact on older adults’ health, especially those with chronic conditions.
  • Virtual and Accessible Nature Experiences: Discover how therapeutic gardens, virtual reality nature experiences, and even simple indoor plants can benefit those unable to engage with outdoor environments directly.
  • Practical Tips for Integrating Nature into Daily Life: Discussion on how to incorporate nature into everyday settings, particularly for older adults, to promote health and well-being.


Links Mentioned in This Episode:

  • 2024 Article on Nature-Based Interventions:
    • “Nature-Based Interventions Targeting Elderly People’s Health and Well-Being: An Evidence Map” can be accessed here.
  • Interactive Matrix Reviewing Nature-Based Interventions with Health Benefits:
    • Explore the detailed evidence map on Tableau Public here.
  • 2009 Article on Therapeutic Influences of Plants in Hospital Rooms:
    • Read about the “Therapeutic Influences of Plants in Hospital Rooms on Surgical Recovery” here.
  • American Horticultural Therapy Association – Therapeutic Gardens:
    • Learn more about therapeutic gardens and their benefits here.


Join me in leveraging the power of nature for better health and a more satisfying life as we age. Whether it’s gardening, forest bathing, or simply bringing more plants into your home, nature offers a plethora of benefits that are both rejuvenating and therapeutic.


Thank you for tuning in, and don’t forget to visit the links provided for a deeper understanding and additional resources. Join us next time as we continue to explore innovative ways to enhance our well-being and live a fuller, healthier life.


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About Dr. Regina Koepp

Dr. Regina Koepp is a board certified clinical psychologist, clinical geropsychologist, and founder and director of the Center for Mental Health & Aging: the “go to” place online for mental health and aging. Dr. Koepp has been featured in NY Times and NPR and is a sought after speaker on the topics of mental health and aging, caregiving, ageism, resilience, sexual health and aging, intimacy in the context of life altering Illness, and dementia and sexual expression. Learn more about Dr. Regina Koepp here.





I have been on this. whirlwind of presenting. It started in March and it went through May. I've been presenting and traveling and finally in May, close to my 48th birthday, I I finally stopped traveling.

I, I was like traveling and presenting and I was feeling really worn out and like I needed to recharge. And in Vermont the gardening season it's critical that you get stuff planted in may around Memorial Day is when they recommend in Vermont, and I just moved to Vermont two years ago.

So I don't know too much about this, but they recommend if you're going to start planting around Memorial Day. So you don't get hit by a freeze and have your plants damaged. So the weekend before Memorial Day weekend and beyond.

I've been nonstop planting and I love it. I've never really done much like landscaping, gardening outside. This year I've gotten really into indoor plants. But since May I've been really obsessed with outdoor. Gardening and I love it and actually what's so sweet and maybe if you get my newsletter, you got a picture a couple of weeks ago of my seven year old who it's our special thing is to garden together and he loves, he knows the names of plants and he loves like watering them with me and going out and seeing their growth and I The health of them.

We have rabbits that are eating our Japanese willows. And so he's really protective of the Japanese willows. And we'll go out and tell the rabbits to scram. And and we just have a blast. It's our special thing. And it's I just love it. And I've been like designing my garden and I'm not very good at it.

I make lots of mistakes, lots and lots of mistakes. I've had to transplant many different plants because of their growth pattern or the soil conditions. Anyway, I'm learning, but the bottom line is I love it. It really fills my soul to be out there creating something beautiful with nature. This brings me to the topic today, which is the benefits of nature on aging and health. And, so often we're focused on diet and exercise and diet and exercise and diet and exercise for aging well, but there are so many other less discussed things that we can be doing, especially for older adults, that they can be doing.

you can be doing to enhance health beyond diet and exercise, because I don't know about you. I eat healthy and I exercise, but it's a little overplayed, the diet and exercise and longevity conversation. I'm a little bored and tired of it. And so I thought, We should expand the conversation to include things and the science behind nature.

So today I'm going to share a 2024 article that was a meta analysis of several articles within the last 10 years looking at the benefits of nature, and I'm going to share with you What they looked at and how it was beneficial. I'm going to include a link to this article on the show notes page. It has an interactive, super cool table that you can use to actually see what health benefit is correlated with which nature activity.

So it's super cool. I'm going to link to it in the show notes, and I hope that you check it out. And it was published in 2024. So this is new evidence. Stay tuned. Let's learn about it together.

If I'm not looking at you, it's because I'm going to, I'm going to, I'm looking at the article so I can give you accurate information. And if you're listening, enjoy the ride. This article was published in 2024 and it looked at the impact of nature on health from heart health, brain health inflammation, and mental health. When it came to nature, these were the aspects of nature that they were looking at. Forest bathing. So forest bathing shinrin yoku, I think is a Japanese art of forest bathing. This is where you walk into a forest without any other sensory devices. So no buds in your ears or headset, listening to anything no mask on you.

You simply walk slowly, mindfully in nature, breathing in and out and taking in the experience of being in nature. So that's forest bathing also hiking in natural areas was one of the nature conditions that they looked at, a therapeutic garden. I'm going to put a link in the show notes to what a therapeutic garden is.

I was looking at the national horticulture society and it found some great recommendations for therapeutic garden. Virtual reality. So could you just be near looking at images of plants? And forest sound. So just listening to forest sounds. And so the images of plants and animals and forest sounds are really important, especially if a person is bed bound or home bound and doesn't have access to Going to a therapeutic garden or hiking in a natural area or forest bathing.

And so are there actually benefits to that to looking at nature or listening to nature? And here's what the study found. So regarding physical aspects, there were cardiovascular and pulmonary benefits. One of the notable results points to a reduction in blood pressure. So after spending time in nature, people had a reduced heart rate, improved lung function, reduced heart failure biomarkers, reduced cardiac variation, and reduced vasoconstriction.

From neuro, immuno, endocrinological. So this is brain health and inflammation. Studies pointed to positive results in reducing inflammation and activation of the immune system. The result of one study showed a reduction in biological markers of heart failure as a consequence of the attenuation of the inflammatory response there were gains in lung function as well, and there was a reduction in the amount of cortisol.

So here's what's really important. All of these studies were with older adults. So also these studies And some of them didn't exclude if a person had Alzheimer's disease or didn't exclude if a person had cardiovascular disease, and we're still finding benefits.

So this is an older typical population with a wide variety of medical and brain health concerns. Other studies in this meta analysis found improvement in cognitive decline after an intervention in nature. Others pointed to reduced tension, anxiety, and fatigued, increased well being, increased happiness and empathy, improved negative mood states, reduced stress, improved sleep and quality of life, and reduced depression after spending time in nature.

Okay, so then the question is so how much time do you have to spend in nature to get a benefit? Some researchers said from 40 minutes to two hours a day, depending on the number of weekly sessions. But the literature lacks consensus regarding the ideal exposure time to nature. There were two studies that had different perspectives. One study looked at close to 20, 000 individuals and recommended two hours of exposure to natural environments, either in one single visit or brief, multiple visits a week. And this study also highlighted that being just in proximity to natural environments near your home also can have benefits. Another study, on the other hand, said it's actually not quantity, it's more quality, and emphasized the importance of quality moments and the appreciation of emotional interactions. With the natural environment to promote wellbeing, focusing not on setting specific timeframes or frequencies for these moments, but rather really embracing a quality moment that kind of reminds me of like a therapeutic garden opportunity or Shinrin yoku, which is that forest bathing. The researcher said, in essence, the emphasis lies on the meaningful connection with nature beyond mere contact.

So as I mentioned, the people who participated in this study were really different from one another, they were all older adults, but they had pre existing diseases and conditions like physical health conditions like hypertension, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, and chronic heart failure, mental illness, depression and Alzheimer's disease. And so there are benefits, whether you're living with these diseases or not.

So with this meta analysis, the researcher said being in person with nature gives you the most bang for your buck. But there are situations where, like I mentioned earlier, where people cannot be physically present in nature. Not physically possible. Maybe you're bed bound. I worked with many people with spinal cord injuries for years who were bed bound and paralyzed from the neck down and didn't have access through transportation to nature.

And so then researcher said if being physically present in nature is not an option, then virtual reality can be also a feasible intervention and you still get benefits. They're not as profound, but there's still better than nothing. And so I'm going to share with you in a minute a different study that looked at having plants in a hospital room and how that benefits health, even for people who are all post surgery. So stay tuned. We're going to talk about that in a minute, but just seeing videos of nature, looking at magazines of nature, having plants nearby forest sounds had some benefits as well. Okay. As I mentioned a couple of minutes ago I wanted to share this other study with you.

Now, this is an older study. This is from February, 2009.

So this study showed that to promote the speed of post operative recovery and to improve the quality of life during hospitalizations, it's important to provide patients not only with the best treatment possible, but also to remove sources of stress and to counter them with positive distractions like nature.

So then it looked at, could nature really improve quality of life? And indeed. Yeah, it does. And so much more when it comes to hospitalizations. So this study found that having Plants in your hospital room reduced your hospital stay the length of hospital stay. So half of the patients were assigned to hospital rooms with plants and half of the patients were assigned to hospital rooms without plants . They found that the people with plants post surgery actually left the hospital sooner. So recovered faster had less pain distress need less pain and weaker pain medications. So lower the risk for addiction, you it gets pretty scary for many people going into the hospital. If they're having surgery, they worry about pain. And many people I've worked with have developed a substance dependence and didn't want that to be an outcome of their medical condition.

What else did they find? Also fatigue decreased. And the patients with plants in the room also had less anxiety and tension, and they reported that their room had a pleasant smell and was more satisfying, relaxing, comfortable, colorful, happy, calming, and attractive compared to those without plants. Plants, a simple intervention can improve the quality of life of people in the hospital.

So why don't we do it? So if you're caring for somebody who has significant medical conditions or physical impairments or functional impairments, is bed bound, is limited to their home, consider adding plants. In fact, I was working with a, I had a client recently and asked if they had a plant and they did.

And so we talked about their plant, they showed me their plant, it was a lovely interaction. And actually it comforted me to know that they had something to care for in the midst of their own pain. So my question for you is now that we know the benefits of nature, how might you incorporate nature into your life or recommend more nature exposure to your client's life?

As I say this, I'm thinking about my seven year old. Remember he likes to garden with me. We were at the plant store and whenever we go to the plant store, there are those big carts and you can put your plants all around the carts. He likes to sit in the middle of the cart and then surround himself with all of the shrubs and plants.

Yeah. And so he's hidden between all the plants, or sometimes they're at the plant store and he goes to sit under in, in between plants that are on the floor. He just loves to be surrounded by plants. And I wonder if that's his little impromptu forest bathing session.

It's very sweet. Sometimes he'll just lay on the cart and let me push him around with plants around and people in the garden shop kind of coo over him because he's pretty charming and cute when he's. Cuddling with plants. He asks always if he can take a plant home. And so I let him like have a herb or something because we can use it.

And he asked for a basil plant and I said, of course. And so he had this basil plant and he like was hugging it and kissing it in the checkout line. It was really sweet. So how might you recommend, incorporate, do you have plans in your office? Do you have plans behind you that people can see if you're doing telehealth, or coaching, or whatever you're doing with your older clients?

How can you encourage nature in your work with older adults. It has significant health benefits and it can be free. Even I like to watch gardening shows now on YouTube and it's invigorating and it doesn't feel life sucking like some shows do. It feels life giving. That's my call to action for you: how can you incorporate more nature in your life or your client's lives? Thanks for being here today. I'll see you next week. Bye for now.

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