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Use of Outdoor Environments

  1. Introduction to older people’s use of their outdoor environments
  2. How often and when participants went out
  3. Where participants went in their local neighbourhoods
  4. The forms of transport participants used
  5. Influences on going out
  6. Time spent outdoors and walking
  7. References

1. Introduction to older people’s use of their outdoor environments

Parts 2-5 of this section present some findings from in-depth interviews conducted by OISD:WISE and SURFACE with 200 older people aged 65 or over. Participants lived in a wide range of different urban/rural locations, although the sample was weighted slightly towards the suburbs. Part 6 (Time spent outdoors and walking) describes some findings from separate, cross-sectional surveys conducted by OPENspace with a sample of over 300 older people in a variety of urban, suburban and rural contexts in Britain.

Here we talk about how often and when participants went out, where they went, the forms of transport they used, personal influences that affected their outdoor activities and time spent outdoors and walking. For other findings from these in-depth interviews and surveys go to How does the Outdoor Environment affect Older People’s QoL?, Experiences of Outdoor Environments, the Street Environment and Parks and Open Spaces.

top of page2. How often and when did participants go out?

In the OISD:WISE and SURFACE survey, we asked participants how often they go out, first in their gardens or balconies, and second in their local neighbourhoods. We asked them to say for both winter and summer. Participants were more likely to go out in the local neighbourhood than into their garden or balcony; especially in winter.

i) Spending time in their gardens and balconies

Only four out of 200 participants did not have access to either a garden or a balcony and people who lived in sheltered housing schemes tended to have access to communal gardens rather than their own private outdoor space. Nearly 75% of participants used their garden or balcony at least several times a week in summer but only one-third in winter; these were mainly people with their own private outdoor space rather than people who shared communal gardens. The most popular reason for going into the garden or balcony was to sit outside, sometimes just to sit or to read or to watch the birds. Gardening was the next most common reason, followed by socialising, either with invited guests or with fellow users of a communal garden.

Unsurprisingly, bad weather was the reason usually given for not spending so much time in the garden or balcony in the winter. However, people living in sheltered accommodation who did not regularly go out into their garden or balcony often explained that they did not like the lack of privacy in the communal garden or that they were not well enough to sit out regularly.
A number of people never used their private outdoor space (12% in summer and 38% in winter).

ii) Spending time in their local neighbourhoods

What was notable was that the participants went out in their local neighbourhoods very frequently, both in winter and summer (89% went out at least several times a week in summer, and 84% in winter). A very small minority reported that they never went out in their local neighbourhoods (2%).

top of page3. Where did participants go in their local neighbourhoods?

We asked participants to tell us where they usually went. The top destinations (in descending order) were as follows:

i) Popular destinations

  1. Shops (98%)
  2. GP surgery (91%)
  3. Someone’s home (84%)
  4. Post office (78%)
  5. Pub/café/restaurant (76%)
  6. Countryside (62%)

Shopping was clearly the main purpose of trips out, with visits to the doctor or clinic close behind. It is interesting that such a high proportion of participants regularly went out to visit people in their homes – social interaction was clearly an important part of their daily lives, as expressed by a participant who said “I come back refreshed when I’ve visited people”. Despite many participants telling us that their local post office had recently closed down, it is clear from these findings that the use a post office is very important to the majority. Meals out at pubs and restaurants with family or friends and visiting cafes during shopping or sightseeing trips were regular and common activities for around three-quarters of the participants. There were also a surprisingly high proportion of older people who regularly visited the countryside.

Although fewer people (46%) said that they regularly use a community centre or church/village hall, these destinations were visited for a highly diverse range of activities including classes for exercise, dancing, art, crafts, music and languages; amateur dramatics; voluntary work; theatre and bridge clubs; meetings of the University of the Third Age, Women’s Institute, Townswomen’s Guild, Parish Council, PROBUS and historical societies; debating, church and book groups; older people’s and lunch clubs; and bingo. Many of those who did not use a community centre or hall lived in sheltered housing where social events take place in the housing scheme’s common room.

ii) Walking distances to destinations

We also asked participants how long it took them to walk to local facilities and amenities. The responses are summarised in Table 1 below, for a range of different destinations:

Table 1. Walking Distances to Destinations
Destination Walking distances
Food store Nearly two-thirds of participants reported they were within 10 minutes’ walking distance.
Newsagent The recommended distance is 5 minutes walking but less than half were within this.
Main shopping centre Around 60% of participants said they were within 20 minutes’ walking distance.
GP/Health clinic Almost one-quarter said they did not know how long it would take them to walk because the distance meant that they needed transport to get there. Of those who knew, not many (36%) were within the recommended (10 minutes’) walking distance.
Chemist About half were within 10 minutes’ walking distance.
Post box These seem to be very frequent: nearly three-quarters of participants reported being within the recommended 5 minutes’ walking distance and nearly all were within 10 minutes’.
Park/green area Nearly two-thirds said they were within 10 minutes of a park or other green space and a high proportion (78%) said they were within 20 minutes.
Bus stop A high proportion (88%) said they were within 10 minutes of a bus stop. However, they did point out that the buses did not necessarily go to the right places or frequently enough!

We can conclude from this that very few participants lived in neighbourhoods that meet the recommended levels of proximity to services and facilities (DTLR, 2001; Llewelyn-Davies, 2000). Nevertheless, this obviously does not deter them from going out.

top of page4. What forms of transport did participants use?

Although the focus of our research was on older people’s experiences of walking in their local neighbourhoods, we felt it was important to find out how important this was as a mode of travel in their day-to-day lives. When asked what forms of transport older people used most, the top forms were as follows (in descending order of importance):

  1. Walking (85%)
  2. Bus (56%)
  3. Drive own car (51%)
  4. Driven by someone else (20%)
  5. Taxi (17%)

This confirms that walking was the predominant form of travel for our participants. As the next choice, people were about equally likely to use the bus or drive their own car. People’s choice of transport had no effect on whether they went out every day or not.

top of page5. What influences going out?

We asked participants a number of questions about themselves to find out if influences not directly connected to the built environment also affected their outdoor activities.

i) Weather conditions

We asked participants if weather conditions ever stopped them from going out. About half the participants stated that ice or snow would stop them. Some participants (38%) said heavy rain would stop them and a minority (20%) said they would not go out if it was very cold. They were generally less concerned about windy conditions.

ii) Gender

We interviewed 118 women and 82 men; gender seems to have very little influence on their use of the outdoor environment apart from two particular issues. Firstly, although people who said they used their own private car as a main form of transport were split roughly equally between men and women, the remainder who did not use a private car were predominantly women. Women were also far more likely to say that they would not go out in icy conditions than men because of fears that they would fall and suffer broken bones.

iii) Age

More participants aged 80 and above went out in their neighbourhoods daily in both summer and winter than those aged between 65 and 79, although this may have more to do with this age group also reporting better health than with age itself. While the use of public buses was spread evenly between these two age groups, participants aged 80 and above were far less likely to drive than the younger participants with a number having given up driving due to problems, such as a stroke or increasingly poor eyesight or because they had been pressurised into it by concerned family members.

iv) Living alone or with others

The majority of participants who lived alone were women (77%) and most of those who lived with others, such as a spouse or relative, were men (63%). Those who lived with other people used their garden or balcony daily in the summer far more than those who lived alone. They also tended to use a private car and to visit the countryside, parks, museums, libraries, sports or leisure centres or go for walks more than those living alone.

v) Past occupation

Participants had been employed in a diverse range of skilled and unskilled occupations although just over half were classified as being in either the managerial and professional occupations (56%) (SOC2000). We found that more people who were classified as being in these occupations went into their neighbourhood daily in the summer and visited museums, libraries, pubs/cafes/restaurants, sports/leisure centres or just went for a walk on a regular basis than those classified as being in other occupations. They were also more likely to say that their health was excellent or very good and that they used a private car as a main mode of transport. As nearly two-thirds of our participants aged 75 and over were also classified as being in the managerial and professional occupations, compared to just under half of those aged 65 to 74, further analysis is required to determine whether their outdoor activity was determined more by age, health or social class.

vi) Health

Participants were asked to say how healthy they generally felt. Nearly half of the respondents told us they felt in excellent health (12%) or very good health (34%) and most of these participants were aged 80 or above. Others said they felt their health was good (25%) and slightly fewer that their health was fair (20%). Only 10% felt that their general health was poor. However, even those who said they felt healthy talked about having health problems, with arthritis being the most common, followed by heart problems, diabetes, and lung-related illnesses including asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia. Other health problems mentioned by a number of participants included cancer, high blood pressure, strokes and chronic back pain. When asked more specific questions about age-related health problems that might affect their use of the outdoor environment, mobility problems were mentioned by a large number of participants (60%). Just over one-third of participants reported poor hearing (36%) and some people either said they had poor vision (that could not be rectified by normal spectacles) (26%) or a poor memory (24%).

Nearly three-quarters of those who said their health was excellent or very good went out in their local neighbourhoods daily and just over half of those who said their health was good, fair or poor still went out every day. However, the latter were less likely to visit theatres, concert halls, cinemas, museums, libraries, people’s homes or the countryside than those with excellent or very good health. As their trips out were more focused on meeting their essential needs such as buying food and seeing the GP, it suggests that health had an influence on the participants’ social and cultural activities.

Despite walking being the most common form of travel and often a preferred means of recreational exercise, it is not surprising that those who told us that their health was not excellent or very good also tended to say that walking was not one of their main forms of getting around and that it generally took them longer to walk to their local shops and facilities than the healthier participants. Of the four age-related problems we specifically asked about (poor mobility, hearing, vision and memory), poor mobility was reported as the most significant limitation on their activities. For these participants it was often not possible to walk very far without experiencing pain or tiredness, even with the help of a walking aid, such as a stick or frame, and 14% of participants with mobility problems used a mobility scooter or electric wheelchair as a major means of getting around their local neighbourhood. They were also more likely to avoid going out in icy, snowy or very hot conditions.

top of page6. What time do people spend outdoors and walking?

In the following section we present findings from the OPENspace study which summarizes aspects of older people’s quality of life affected by outdoor activity and show how supportive and unsupportive environments relate to this. These findings are based on a cross-sectional sample of over 270 older people in a variety of urban, suburban and rural contexts in Britain. We asked participants to identify outdoor activities they like to do and the degree of supportiveness of their environment, i.e. how easy the environment makes it to undertake these activities. The results indicate that the quality of, and access to, neighbourhood open spaces are associated with people spending a longer time walking outdoors in an average week. Different aspects of neighbourhood open spaces are relevant to different types of walking. Participants who assessed their neighbourhood environments as fairly or very supportive were approximately 2.5 times more likely to attain the recommended level of walking (2.5 hours per week or more) in comparison to those who judged their neighbourhood environment not supportive. Participants who walked for 5.6 hours per week or more were almost four times more likely to be in good health compared to those who walked for less than 1.8 hours per week.

Chart 1. Time spent outdoors in supportive and unsupportive environments

Chart 1. Time spent outdoors in supportive and unsupportive 
      environments D

6.1 Which factors are associated with spending longer in outdoor activities?

6.1.1 Time spent outdoors and outdoor activities

When we asked participants about the frequency of their outdoor activities, the things that made a difference to how often and how long they spent time outdoors were:

  • the presence of facilities, such as seats, toilets, and shelters in their neighbourhood open space [association with participant’s total outdoor time (walking outdoors, gardening and performing other outdoor activities): Odds Ratio=1.57, 95% Confidence Interval=1.14-2.15]
  • good paths (easy to walk on and enjoyable) to reach their open spaces [association with participant’s total outdoor time: Odds Ratio=1.57, 95% Confidence Interval=1.13-2.19]

The results also showed that the presence of water features such as a fountain or a river, beach or lakeside, contribute to longer time spent in other outdoor activities, including gardening [association with other outdoor activity time: Odds Ratio=1.37, 95% Confidence Interval=1.05-1.79]

6.1.2 Living conditions and outdoor activity

When considering socio-demographic factors and their possible impact on time spent outdoors, we found that two aspects make a difference:

  • participants living in shelter/care home were 69% less likely than those living in their own home to spend at least 1.5 hours per week engaged in gardening and other outdoor activities
  • participants living with someone were 2.17 times more likely to engage in gardening and other outdoor activities than those living alone.

We conclude that all these elements are significant in relation to healthy activities outdoors.

top of page7. References

Department of Health (2004). At least five a week: Evidence on the impact of physical activity and its relationship to health. Department of Health, London

Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, 2001 Better places by design: a companion guide to PPG3. London: The Stationery Office.

Llewelyn-Davies, 2000. Urban Design Compendium. London: Llewelyn-Davies

Office for National Statistics, 2000. Standard Occupation Classification. www.statistics.gov.uk [cited 1 November 2004].

Sugiyama, T. & Ward Thompson, C. 2007. Older people’s health, outdoor activity and supportiveness of neighbourhood environments. Landscape and Urban Planning 83, 168-175, doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2007.04.002

Sugiyama, T. & Ward Thompson, C. 2008. Associations between characteristics of neighbourhood open space and older people’s walking. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 7(1), 41-51

Sugiyama, T., Ward Thompson, C. and Alves, S. 2008. Associations between neighborhood open space attributes and quality of life for older people in Britain. Environment and Behavior, first published on March 20, 2008 as doi:10.1177/0013916507311688

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