Putting the Science of Aging to the Test in a Life Full of Adventure

Carolyn Paul A The New York Times Best-selling author Daring Girl: Adventures for a Lifetime of Epic Adventure; You Are Great: A Guide to Changing the World; And The Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Despair, and GPS TechnologyAnd also notes Fire-fighting About becoming one of San Francisco’s first firefighters and the novel East wind, rain. She graduated with a communications degree from Stanford University and is part of the Writers’ Grotto in San Francisco.

Below, Caroline shares five key takeaways from her new book, Challenging and wide-ranging: from boogie boarding to wing-walking—how outdoor adventure improves our lives as we age. Listen to the audio version – read by Carolyn herself – in the Next Big Idea app.

Tough Wide Carolyn Paul Club Next Big Idea


1. The way we view our aging predicts how well we will grow older.

One day, when I was surfing in a cold winter’s wave, and I looked around, there was no middle-aged woman there. There were a lot of middle-aged men, some 75 years old, but no women. You see the same thing if you look around at people who are skiing or even flying – lots of middle-aged and older men, but no women.

So why are they not there? Turns out the messages about aging for women in this country are really toxic. Women are told that this will be a time of broken bones, cognitive decline, and fading attractiveness — a boring time. We are told that the uncertainty of the outdoors is too much for us, and the rest is just an arduous journey through illness and cultural irrelevance.

But in reality, it’s all in the mentality. Studies show that the way we view our aging predicts how well we will age. This means that if you think that old age will be a time of frailty and frailty, you have a much greater chance of developing heart problems and early cognitive decline. However, if you see your aging journey as full of joy and exploration, you will be healthier and happier. What’s mind-blowing is that women, with the right mindset, can live seven and a half years longer.

2. The outdoors is the best antidote to toxic ageism.

Science tells us that we need a positive mindset about our aging, but what they don’t say is how to get into that mindset in the face of such extremely depressing messages. Slogan and positive thinking won’t really do it.

A group of 60-, 70-, 80- and even 90-year-olds in San Diego called “Water with the Wave Chasers” do a lot of boogie boarding together. Boogie boarding is a simple sport: you wade into the water, perhaps wearing fins, grab a flotation box, and ride a wave or even just white water the wave as you make your way back to shore.

Boogie Boarding is usually a children’s sport. Lauren Voigt says dancehall changed her life. I shudder when I hear her explanation, “I’ve never been an outdoors person. I’ve never lived an outdoor life. And look, here I am in this vast, flooded Pacific Ocean. I come three times a week because I’m committed to this group. No matter what “The water is cold, or whatever the wind is, here I am, 62 years old, and I’m in this situation.”

“They are upending what society thinks they can and cannot do.”

Boogie riding, and outdoor adventures in general, is a direct rebuke of all the messages that told Lauren—and so many others—that as an older woman, she was weak, no longer sharp, no longer fun, but boring. When Lauren and the other members of the group take to the water, what they are doing is more than just surfing, they are upending what society believes they can and cannot do.

What nature asks of us when we interact with it belies everything we are told about the aging journey. This is how we deeply embody what scientists tell us that a positive mindset is vital to our health and future; An outdoor activity full of joy, exploration and physical activity.

3. Cultivate awe because it is truly good for you.

Awe is defined as the emotion we feel in the presence of something mysterious, something bigger than ourselves, a kind of mixed fear, confusion and wonder. This is often associated with a religious experience, but is also easily triggered by nature: looking up at the night sky or down at the vast Grand Canyon. Science tells us that awe is actually good for us.

I was in awe when I went for a wing walk, which is when you step out of the cockpit of a perfectly good biplane while you’re in the air at 3,000 feet and walk to the center of the wing. In my case, it wasn’t the wing walking, but more the wing gliding and crawling. Then, as soon as I attached myself to the royal column centered at the top of the wing, the pilot executed a series of loops, hammerheads, and barrel rolls, and my mind was immediately thrown into a state of awe.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be intimidated by walking on the wing; You can reach it by just walking. Scientists from the UCSF Institute for Memory Care and Aging sent volunteers ages 60 to 80 on an outdoor excursion for 15 minutes a day over the course of eight weeks. The instructions they gave them were to look at everything with fresh, childish eyes, thus instilling awe in the people who were walking. Almost as an afterthought, the researchers asked participants to take a selfie during each trip. These walkers, as they were called, soon reported slight improvements in health, less anxiety, and more gratitude and compassion. Scientists also found a significant reduction in inflammation, another key to good health.

Notably, these selfies, which initially showed the pedestrian’s face across the entire screen, began to change over the course of eight weeks. The faces began to recede, and the surroundings began to take up most of the image instead. Scientists called this the small-self perspective, suggesting that participants became more curious and had a healthier sense of their place.

In the wider world, scientists call dread the brain’s reset button because it shakes up our neural patterns and makes us more open-minded. It’s also worth noting that we live in a world full of anti-intimidation devices, like our phones and computers. These screens narrow our focus, ask us to think small, and make us feel powerful and in control. This is the opposite of dread. The result is that by slowing down and allowing yourself to marvel at leaves, tree bark, insects or birds, you can also de-focus on yourself, reset some old neural pathways, lower your cortisol and inflammation, and really make room for new and deeper thoughts. Emotion such as gratitude and compassion. You can also try wing walking if your spirit moves you.

4. Mother Nature is therapeutic.

I knew on an intuitive level that I felt better after getting outside, but it turns out there’s some real biological evidence for that. Things like chemicals in trees strengthen our immune system and lower blood pressure. Studies on bird songs show that they improve our mood and cognitive ability. Scientists believe that the sound of happy birds signals to our primitive selves that predators are not around. When the birds are quiet, such as in urban environments, our nervous system really fires up, ready to fight or fight for whatever is hiding in the bushes.

“15 to 45 minutes in a natural environment of any kind increases well-being.”

Also, circular shapes in nature, such as skylines and hills, along with the recurring fractal elements of things like trees and foliage, fit well with how our retinas are built, allowing us to easily process when we’re outside. The brain, which is constantly filtering out stimuli, has less noise and busy work to deal with. Compare that to what you have to do in an urban environment with rushing traffic, sudden loud noises, and difficult linear architecture – getting outside is relaxing for the brain. That’s why people who walked in green spaces showed significant improvements in memory and cognition when they were tested afterwards. In conclusion, 15 to 45 minutes in a natural environment of any kind increases health. Five hours a month is a recipe for sustained emotional and physical recovery.

People say they feel so intimidated about doing an outdoor activity that they are hesitant. But we all take medications when they promise to improve our health, even though they carry a long list of potential side effects: vomiting, diarrhea, headaches. If we think of the fear we may feel about going out as just another side effect, it will actually lead to not only better physical health, but better emotional health, and overall well-being that is really hard to overcome.

5. We can and should learn something new at an older age.

One of our biggest concerns as we age is cognitive health. One of the best ways to keep your mind active is novelty or learning something new. When was the last time you learned something new? Recently, it seemed like we only learned to stand six feet away from someone when the pandemic hit. We’ve been taught to believe that our brains are too calcified to be tasked with new challenges as we get older. However, research proves that the brain has what we call plasticity, and that it is constantly making new cells regardless of our age. The outdoors is a great place to bring renewal into your life, mostly because Mother Nature is always uncertain.

For example, if you go for a walk in the park, it might rain, or you might see a bird you didn’t expect. It’s pretty new, and your brain has to adapt. When I learned to fly a gyrocopter, I noticed that I learned to fly it better than I would have learned when I was a younger version of myself. I learned about this strange flying machine without any of the insecurity, the need to be liked, or the need to prove something I had when I was younger.

Vijaya Reva Stava’s doctor told her that at the age of 68, she really needed to exercise and prescribed swimming lessons for her. However, Vijaya said she has never practiced an outdoor lifestyle, not even walking. The only thing I did that was even remotely active was badminton. When the doctor prescribed swimming, Vijaya explained that she was afraid of drowning, even though she was known to have a truly adventurous spirit. Instead of ignoring her doctor’s advice, she enlisted the help of a friend and began learning to swim. Every lesson she learned was a challenge, not only to her mind but also to her sense of self. She kept upending what she thought she could and couldn’t do during this process. She discovered that once she started swimming, she felt capable of doing anything. She started doing other activities, not just outdoor activities, and her whole life opened up.

Today’s seniors will tell you that the best decade is your 60s. Not the sexy, juicy 20s, the combative 30s, or the family-oriented 40s, but the 60s. Unfortunately, that’s not what society tells us.

To listen to the audio version read by author Carolyn Ball, download the Next Big Idea app today:

Hear the key ideas in the next Big Idea app

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