Alexa Meins, PhD, BS, is a recent alumni of the UW School of Nursing PhD program. She received the de Tornyay Center’s 2020 PhD Pathways to Healthy Aging Award.
All interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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What is your dissertation on?
My dissertation explored green exercise, or physical activity while in natural spaces, for older adults. I partnered with Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Sound Steps programs to gain insight into how we can make urban park walking programs appealing for older adults and what kinds of health benefits are received from participating in this type of programming. Findings from this study can inform future program development and expansion. They also show us that physical, mental, social, and spiritual health can all benefit from green exercise.
How did you get involved in this research?
I work in the outdoor industry as I’m going to school. I’ve had a lot of conversations in my work life about how people have had to modify how they engage in the outdoors as they age. I knew Basia Belza, who became my chair, did a lot with the walking groups in the mall. And I thought, what if we took that walking group outside.
I was at a coffee shop and I saw the Seattle Parks and Recreation catalog for that season. They had the full catalog and then they also had this lifelong recreation catalog sitting next to it. It’s this whole set of programming that the city offers for adults age 50 and above. They have walking programs and hiking programs. Basia said she knew the people that are doing this and it went from there. It was really a couple of things all happening a t once that just clicked together.
Why is this research important?
More and more we have things that keep us inside. Also some of the research says that as we age, our exercise decreases a lot. Exercise is really important for mobility and independence, for managing different health diseases and for preventing them.
The green exercise literature says that being outside can not only have multiple health benefits, but also increase people’s willingness to continue exercising. This is a great opportunity because we aren’t really looking at older adults right now within green exercise literature. It’s not only really great for everyone’s health, but it also might help solve this this problem of motivation to keep exercising. And the more that we can understand why people are choosing these programs, what is important for them, what are the needs of older adults in an outdoor space, then we can also look to expand programs or make more programs appealing to this age group.
What are some of the ways that you found that more could be done to cater to their specific needs?
There’s some logistics that are very easy to build into programs. One of them being, how did they get to the program? They drove, so parking was important. Having an onsite bathroom was important. Another thing that came through was a need for socialization. There’s a large amount of people in my study who are retired. They don’t necessarily have all the same ways of meeting people that they used to. Having programs that happen consistently at the same time every week not only gives them structure to their day and their week, but also makes it so that they’re able to develop these deep social connections and friendships with other people they are walking with. Also a lot of them say that the social group makes it so they can feel safe. They’re around other people that could get help if something happened, like a fall.
What interests you about the healthy aging field and aging research?
When I was trying to figure out what my topic for my dissertation was going to be, this idea of green exercise was really important. I saw in my dad, who’s a big skier, how my wintertime dad is very different than my summertime dad. I see how much better his health and his happiness is when he’s able to get outside. We’re seeing a lot of really great benefits of green exercise in research, but mostly for children and young adults. There’s this big opportunity for studying outdoor exercise for older adults.
How did you first realize that you wanted to do research?
Back when I was doing my anthropology degree, I had to do a research project. At that time, I was a rower and recognized that high level athletics created a unique health culture around exercise. So I went on to do my thesis on the pain experience of Division I athletes. That was the first time that I really had the opportunity to dive in and do some research. It opened up this whole world.
What was it about research that appealed to you?
The type of research that I do is qualitative, so for me, it’s being able to give a voice to people. I love the interview process. Everyone has their own life experience, but it’s amazing to see how many people have shared experiences. The more that we know in health care about what people are going through in their life then the better we are able to address their needs and take care of their health.
Anthropology has a very rich tradition in qualitative methods. I’m excited to bring my background in qualitative methods to this project and incorporate quantitative methods as well. By using both we can get the numbers and we also learn from getting their experience. Sometimes it surprises you with what you can find.
What have you found when putting them together?
We were doing walking interviews through urban parks and some of our public indoor spaces with these older adults, while they were doing the activities. I realized that there’s some misunderstandings happening with this survey. The theory that I’m using says essentially when you are exposed to nature you can get these extra health benefits around mental health and stress, and there are factors that identifies it as a restorative environment. I had included a survey that asked about these factors.
One of the questions is, rate on a scale of zero to six “to stop thinking about things that I must get done, I like to go to places like this.” Some were saying, going to the park helps me disengage and really enjoy this moment. Then others say, I sought out going outside because this is when I have the time to think. They’re looking at these at these spaces completely different, even when I give them the same prompt. Combining the survey questions and interview uncovered this potential problem. Maybe before we go into larger studies we need to look at if this survey translates well for this population.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
One thing that I think drew me to Nursing was that there is a willingness to embrace holistic approaches to healthcare and to be focused on prevention as well as disease management. There’s so much potential here for enabling people to continue enjoying the activities that they love through aging, making some of these considerations, so that our public spaces are still accessible to all.