The environment you live in can harm you or it can heal you and, between these two extremes, there’s a wide range of ways your surroundings can affect you. On the harmful end of the spectrum are obvious environmental hazards like air pollution and leaded water (think Flint, Michigan). On the healing end, simply living in a neighborhood where there is vegetation and an abundance of bird life has been shown to produce positive mental health effects. But there are many other subtle ways our immediate environment either supports or undermines our health. In retirement our aging bodies and changing circumstances can make staying active more of a challenge; our environment can compound that challenge or, if we’re lucky or deliberate about where we live, our environment can, without us even noticing, deliver “health by stealth.” Understanding how to read our surroundings to know how they’re harmful or healthful is the first step toward overcoming their limitations or making a change.
Three Approaches to Staying Active: Which Are You?
I learned the term “health by stealth”—and gained a new appreciation for how our environments affect us—when I read a recent study from Britain called “Towards co-designing active ageing strategies: A qualitative study to develop a meaningful physical activity typology for later life.” To understand how older people (aged 65-80) thought about staying active, the study’s authors interviewed and “typed” 27 people of varied backgrounds from Norfolk, England, and engaged those people and community leaders in a brainstorming discussion about how higher levels of physical activity could be encouraged.
Three “types” were identified. “‘Exercisers’ had engaged in sport and exercise throughout their life but experienced physical ill health and limitations as barriers. ‘Out-and-about-ers’ pursued social engagement and a variety of interests but experienced biographical disruption through retirement and loss of companions that limited social activities in later life. A final type characterized people who preferred ‘sedentary/solitary’ activities.”
Typical efforts to engage older people in the Norfolk community included familiar gambits like offering lower-impact exercise classes in gymnasiums, but the study found that only ‘exercisers’—already comfortable in gym settings—were drawn to such classes. The other groups, particularly the ‘out-and-about-ers,’ were used to activity as a byproduct of other pursuits like gardening or social outings with friends, and weren’t interested in “exercise” for its own sake. In the brainstorming session the study participants and community leaders developed innovative solutions, ranging from big investments like expanding walking trails and bike paths, to more easily enacted ideas like matching older people with younger neighbors to walk their dogs while they’re at work.
How Does Your Neighborhood Measure Up?
Think about the next ten or twenty years of your life. Inevitably, you’re going to slow down. Now think about where you live. Does your neighborhood—say, a quarter mile in every direction around you—have the infrastructure and amenities that will help keep you active simply as a byproduct of everyday life? Imagine living in a place where you can walk or ride your bike to coffee shops, restaurants, the grocery store, perhaps even a theater. A place where you don’t have to drive your car to get to your Lifelong Learning Institute. A place where there are parks and wildlife. And, best of all, your friends live there, too.
How does your neighborhood live up to this ideal? Maybe there isn’t a place exactly like this anywhere, but it makes sense to look at our surroundings through this lens and think about how it supports or undermines us as we age. (One simple proxy for this is your neighborhood “Walk Score.” You can enter your address and find your Walk Score here.) If your neighborhood undermines you, you may want to consider how you’ll compensate for its shortcomings and find ways to stay active as you age. If you’re planning to move in retirement, look for a place where the neighborhood geography delivers “health by stealth”!