Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

The Interaction of Stress and Park Use on Psycho-Physiological Health in Older Adults

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

The Interaction of Stress and Park Use on Psycho-Physiological Health in Older Adults

Article excerpt


Health professionals have long recognized the negative effects of stress upon psychological and physical health. According to the American Institute of Stress (2002), 43% of the adult U.S. population experience adverse health conditions due to stress. Moreover, an estimated 75% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints and disorders. Stress has also been linked to health indicators such as obesity (measured through indices such as body mass index and percentage body fat), high systolic blood pressure, and elevated heart rates (Bell, Summerson, Spangler, & Konen, 1998; Brand, Hanson, & Godaert, 2000). Stress is particularly problematic in the health of older adults, since aging is generally associated with changes in physical, psychological (e.g., cognitive, emotional), and social functions. A number of age-related changes (e.g., chronic disease, disability, loss of a loved one, care giving) can be viewed as potential Stressors and have negative consequences for other aspects of personal health among older adults (Baltes & Baltes, 1990).

However, there are multiple definitions of stress. Stress can be conceptualized as both a positive (thought of as eustress) or a negative phenomenon (known as distress). For the purpose of this paper, stress will be considered as distress. While distress can be defined in a number of ways, one comprehensive definition suggests that it is a process in which people are unable to adapt to environmental demands (Cohen, Kessler & Gorgon, 1997). The instabilities within the human system create psychological and/or biological changes, which places individuals at an increased risk for poor health (Cohen et al., 1997). In particular, chronic (or daily) stressors can have a cumulative influence on psychological or physical health outcomes (Eckenrode & Bolger, 1997). Some scholars have argued that "everyday" stress or hassles have a greater impact on health and well-being than those life events which occur at relatively infrequent intervals (Folkman & Lazarus, 1988). As a result, a myriad of cognitive and behavioral strategies have been suggested to reduce or mitigate chronic stress and its health diminishing properties. Increasingly, scholars and social institutions are testing the efficacy of interventions designed to mitigate stress and, thus, improve the overall health of individuals and communities.

Physical activity has been investigated as a possible strategy for improving mental health, including stress. Physical activity (defined as any bodily movement) has been linked to improved health and decreased stress (Surgeon General's Report, 1996). Physical activity can be thought of as umbrella concept that encompasses exercise, household tasks, occupational or work related tasks, and leisure time activity (Casperson, Powell, & Christianson, 1985). Leisure activity is one type of physical activity purported to reduce chronic stress and improve health (Coleman & Iso-ahola, 1993; Iwaski & Manell, 2000; Kleiber, Hutchinson, & Williams, 2002).

Based on these relationships, there is a growing recognition that public park opportunities are an important part of the health care infrastructure (Crompton, 1999; Payne, 2002; Payne et al., 1999). However, there is currently a dearth of information concerning empirical relationships between leisure behavior in natural park settings, stress, and health.

Without such evidence, it will be difficult for park and recreation professionals to understand or quantify if and how their products/services reduce stress levels and improve the health of their constituents. Moreover, the small but growing body of leisure, stress, and health research has relied almost entirely on self-reported health data, rather than a comprehensive assessment of psychological and physiological health dimensions. That is, no studies have explored the relationships between park-based leisure activity, stress, and objective measures of physiological health (e. …

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