Florence Nightingale's "Wonder Drug": The Benefits of Fresh Air for Seniors

Think of the expression “airing out.” While we all have experienced how cleansing it feels to open up a window on the first day of spring, or delight in the smell of sun-bleached, line-dried laundry, did you know the benefits of that refreshed and rejuvenated feeling is backed up by scientific research?

“It turns out that fresh air doesn’t just give us a psychological lift – it actually has measurable, physical benefits as well,” says Cindy Wirth, Executive Director of Bridges® by EPOCH at Sudbury, a memory care assisted living community in Sudbury, MA. “The scientific and medical community has known for a long time that fresh air and sunshine have restorative properties. Healthcare professionals are now touting that getting outside and being in the fresh air should be part of everyone’s health plan, including seniors.”

“Fresh air,” for many, is usually synonymous with “exercising,” and while that’s definitely a good chunk of what being outside entails, Cindy says that seniors don’t have to break a sweat to reap the benefits that fresh air can bring. 

“Even just sitting outside on the porch for a half-hour can allow aging adults to benefit from everything the outdoors has to offer,” she says. “That’s great news for seniors who may have mobility problems or who simply can’t be as active as they would like. So grab your favorite beverage, open a window and spend an evening enjoying the breeze – it’s the doctor’s orders!”

Florence Nightingale and the “Wonder Drug” of Fresh Air

The famous nurse Florence Nightingale became world-renowned during the Crimean War when she almost single-handedly created the field of nursing. One of her most famous and oft-cited discoveries comes from the simple fact that fresh air helped injured soldiers recover faster and overall improved health and well-being. She wrote: “Do you ever go into the bedrooms of any persons . . . at night, or before the windows are opened in the morning, and find the air unwholesomely close and foul?” Her recommendation was to ensure that sick patients receive fresh air regularly to help them heal as quickly as possible. “It is the unqualified result of all my experience with the sick, that second only to their need of fresh air is their need of light,” she stated.

Florence was not the only medical professional to advocate the curative properties of fresh air and sunlight. Back in the 18th century, physician John Lettsom prescribed sea air and sunshine as a remedy for tuberculosis, while in 1840, surgeon George Bodington made the observation that individuals who worked outside (like farmers) generally were not afflicted with tuberculosis while their counterparts who spent most of their time indoors (like clerks, small children and women) were more likely to develop it. 

Today, science is continuing to discover that ventilation and fresh air have numerous health benefits. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized since 2009 that the natural flow of air through a building can help control infection, particularly in healthcare facilities. A more recent study from China discovered that a low rate of ventilation in college dormitories lead to a higher incidence rate of respiratory infections. 

As for the why, scientists haven’t quite landed on the reason. It’s been known for some time that sunlight has natural disinfecting properties, as many of the microbes that cause airborne infections aren’t able to tolerate sunlight. However, we’re also seeing evidence that there’s something about being in the open air that kills germs, even when the sun isn’t out. 

How Fresh Air Benefits Seniors

Aging adults can benefit greatly from fresh air and sunshine, particularly because it’s cheap, easy to get and able to be enjoyed by seniors of all ages and health levels. Here are just some of the reasons why getting outside and “airing out” can help seniors age well and stay well:

  • It’s a great source of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a super vitamin that helps increase bone strength, which means fewer injuries from falls and a decreased risk of fractures (all great things for seniors who are at higher risk of falling). Most of us – especially seniors – aren’t getting enough Vitamin D in our daily lives, and while taking supplements can help, there’s no substitution for the “real thing.” Luckily, spending just 30 minutes outside (even on cloudy days) gets you the daily recommended dose of Vitamin D. 
  • It provides opportunities to exercise. We’d previously mentioned that being outside is usually synonymous with “exercise” for many people. Taking a walk, gardening, hiking, walking the dog or doing light yard work are all excellent ways to get your muscles moving in the fresh air. As we all know, physical exercise is a great way to stay healthy, so why not get your daily dose of fresh air while you’re building up a sweat? 
  • It improves our moods. We just feel better when we’re outside in the fresh air. Being cooped up makes us feel lethargic, depressed and anxious, but getting outside boosts our energy levels, improves our circadian rhythm, encourages the production of serotonin, and simply makes us feel good. Spend fifteen minutes sitting outside and listening to the birds, and see if you don’t feel better!
  • It promotes healing. Really! Breathing fresh air draws more oxygen into the lungs, which aids the healing process. Plus, as noted by Florence Nightingale and company, fresh air has some sort of antibacterial properties that help kill (or remove) toxins, giving our bodies that much more of a chance to get and stay healthy. 
  • It gives us more energy. More oxygen and fewer toxins equal more energy in our bodies. Oxygen is carried by our red blood cells to all parts of our body, helping our systems function at the highest level. 
  • It reduces stress. Science has shown that being in nature helps reduce our stress levels and allows us to relax. All our senses are engaged when we’re outside, from smelling the grass and trees to hearing birdsong to feeling the fresh air on our faces. Getting away from our computer and television screens, stepping into the outside and simply being one with nature can help reduce our blood pressure and is simply something enjoyable to do. 
  • It helps us get a good night’s sleep. Our bodies’ circadian rhythms are regulated by sunlight, so when we get a healthy dose of light and dark (as well as the signals that fresh air sends to our brains), our bodies are attuned more naturally to the sleep/wake cycle. This helps us fall asleep at night and wake rested the next morning to do it all over again. 

“Being outside has so many benefits for aging adults, and it’s something we encourage each and every day at Bridges® by EPOCH at Sudbury,” says Cindy. “The good news is that all seniors can enjoy the benefits of fresh air for free and with very little effort. Many of our residents enjoy sitting quietly in our courtyard or taking a stroll along our enclosed paths in their own time. Since we have professional staff on hand at all times, they and their family members can relax, knowing that everyone can enjoy the outdoors in safety.” 

Exceptional Care. Engaging Lifestyle.

Now open! Bridges® by EPOCH at Sudbury provides exceptional memory care in a comfortable, upbeat and engaging environment. Designed specifically to support people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, Bridges® by EPOCH creates a wellness-focused lifestyle that respects individual preferences. Our teams receive ongoing, specialized training so they may help residents to safely exercise their independence and individuality in a secure, calm environment.

One Community. For Life.

We provide complete peace of mind for families and residents experiencing early-, mid- or late-stage memory loss. Our expert dementia care, all-inclusive services and personalized programs are tailored to meet the physical, cognitive and emotional needs of each resident wherever they are on their journey, allowing them to age in place safely, comfortably and with respect.

Welcoming, Purpose-Built Design

Bridges® by EPOCH at Sudbury is more than a safe, beautiful place to live; it’s truly a home, where compassionate, dementia-educated caregivers help people with memory loss live more joyful lives and where families enjoy spending time together again. Our research-based design features soft lighting and colors, non-glare flooring, directional cues, aromatherapy and interactive life-enrichment stations that empower residents to comfortably move about their homes with confidence.

Contact us today to learn more.