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Benefits of stepping into the "green"

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

There are many things that have changed in our world over the past ten months. Somedays it feels difficult to think of a life without the pandemic.

When the pandemic hit the United States, the Summer was approaching and many of us had serious Spring fever. I happened to be one of the many that were itching to be outside in the sun!

Summertime is when the outdoors beckons us. We go to the beach in droves, have picnics, barbecues, surf, kayak, fish, and swim. Some hike, and others bike, and a few run-some do all! Outdoor times such as these are generally seasonal and not the daily norm.

With the pandemic having everyone in isolation, being in the “green” became the norm - we were gravitating to parks and the outdoors. Even places we gather to eat meals, exercise, and shop, moved their dining tables, exercise equipment and classes, and merchandise racks outside. Looking back, I am sure many of us didn't know the second half of 2020 would be more of the same.

Chances are when you step outdoors for a walk, hike, bike ride, or simply to sit on a park bench you feel revitalized, calm, your energy increases, and your stress reduces. If you noticed the shift in your mood, clarity, and experience overall happier feelings when being in nature, there are good reasons for that!

Spending time in Mother Nature may have more health benefits than you are aware of. Aside from being fun, research has shown that being outdoors is good for the mind, body, and soul.

Some of the benefits I am going to discuss may also be achieved by indoor means (with a bit more hassle and expense), but with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reporting that the average American spends 93% of their life indoors, where concentrations of some pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher than typical outdoor concentrations, then the shift towards outdoor living driven by the pandemic, maybe a trend we want to consider continuing into 2021.

Vitamin D Levels Rise

Vitamin D is sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin” because it’s produced endogenously in a chemical reaction that occurs when ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sunlight strike the skin and trigger vitamin D synthesis.

What many may not realize, is that vitamin D is a prohormone. Prohormones are substances our body can convert to hormones. Unlike many other vitamins only about 10% of vitamin D is absorbed from food, and the rest the body makes for itself. Once vitamin D is synthesized, it's then activated by the liver and kidneys, then converted to calcitriol, which is the active form of the hormone in the body that helps to regulate calcium metabolism.

Vitamin D has several important functions. Perhaps the most vital are regulating the absorption of calcium and phosphorus and enabling normal immune system function. Getting sufficient amount of Vitamin D is important for normal growth and development of bones and teeth. Without sufficient vitamin D, bones can become thin, brittle, or break. Vitamin D sufficiency prevents rickets in children and osteomalacia (softening of bones) in adults. Together with calcium, vitamin D also helps protect older adults from osteoporosis. as well as improved resistance against certain diseases.

The World Health Organization states depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease. Globally, more than 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression. Vitamin D plays a role in regulating several neurotransmitters that are linked to depression such as adrenaline, noradrenaline (also called norepinepherine), and dopamine production in the brain; as well as helping to protect from serotonin depletion. Researchers have discovered vitamin D receptors on a handful of cells located in areas of the brain that contribute to brain function. For these reasons, having low levels of vitamin D make you more susceptible to depression.

In addition to its primary health benefits, research suggests that vitamin D may also play a role in reducing your risk of multiple sclerosis, decreasing your chance of developing heart disease, reducing mental illness (aside from depression), and aiding in weight loss.

Keep in mind the skin can only produce a limited amount of vitamin D at one time. Once your body reaches its limit, spending more time in the sun will not continue to increase vitamin D levels. Continued time in the sun will increase your skin cancer risk though, so experts recommend being "sun-safe" by covering up when out in the sun through protective clothing and a wide brimmed hat, using a broad spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher, and limiting time in the sun between peak hours of 10 am to 4 pm.

Exercise and Physical Activity Increases (especially in children)

Being outside doesn't guarantee you will exercise or be physically active, but there's no question that indoor living is associated with being sedentary, particularly with children.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that children aged 8 to 10 years spend an average of six hours per day in front of a screen, kids aged 11 to 14 years spend an average of nine hours per day, and youth aged 15 to 18 years spend an average of seven-and-a-half hours per day in front of a screen.

Many observational studies have found a positive association between time outdoors and physical activity with children and several studies were able to quantify the amount of time outdoors and physical activity among children. In one study researchers used GPS receivers to record the outdoor location of over 1,000 11-year old children in 23 urban schools and matched this information with data from accelerometers that measured children's physical activity. When analyzing the data, researchers found that children spend, about 42 minutes on average outside after school each day and that physical activity was two to three times higher outside than inside. Results from this study also showed there was no gender difference in time spent outdoors, physical activity outdoors was higher in the summer than in the winter months, and there was no seasonal variation in physical activity that took place indoors. In another article, a systematic review of literature, twenty-eight studies were included and the author's concluded that children aged 3-12 years who spend more time outside were more active and less sedentary. All of the studies included in this review reported that being outdoors had "positive effects on movement behaviors."

Many adults go to a gym to exercise and prefer the controlled environment that the gym provides. There's nothing wrong with exercising indoors, but research shows there is more of a mental and physical "boost" when exercising outdoors. Exercising outdoors was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy, and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, and anger. Additionally, the constantly changing environment (terrain, wind, temperature, etc.) forces a fluctuation in work rates, causing about ten percent more calorie expenditure walking, hiking, or running outside than when doing the same activity on a treadmill.

Planned exercise aside, chances are if you make getting outside a goal, that should mean less time in front of an electronic device or the television and more time walking, biking, gardening, cleaning up the yard, (children) playing, and doing other things that put the body in motion.

Happiness Increases

Light has been shown to elevate people’s mood, and unless you live in a house that has windows as walls, there is more light outside your house than in!

Spending time outdoors, especially in green spaces, has been shown to be one of the fastest ways to improve your happiness. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research adds to existing evidence and shows how little time it takes to get the benefits of being outside. Spending just twenty minutes in a park, even if you don't exercise, is enough to improve well-being according to the research.

The study's co-author, Hon Yuen, director of research in the occupational therapy department at the University of Alabama in Birmingham state,

"Some people may go to the park and just enjoy nature. It's not that they have to be rigorous in terms of exercise," Yuen says, "You relax and reduce stress, and then you feel more happy."

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who walk for 90 minutes in a natural setting, such as a forest or a nature park, were less likely to ruminate (a trademark of depression and anxiety) and had lower activity in an area of the brain linked to depression than people who walked in an urban area. The study co-author wrote,

“Accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

The authors of this study found the decrease in participant's rumination "exciting results" because it demonstrated the impact of nature experience on an aspect of emotion regulation-which may explain how nature makes us "feel better."

Urbanization is associated with an increased mental illness, but the mechanisms of how and why are not yet clear. Scientists theorize that decreased nature experience may help to explain the link between depression and urbanization. With more than half of the world's population living in urban settings, and the number forecasted to rise to 70 percent over the next few decades, researchers have encouraged urban planners and policymakers to understand the relationship between exposure to nature and mental health. Gretchen Daily, a professor and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, studies the effects of urbanization on mental health and hopes her findings,

"Can make cities more livable worldwide and make nature more accessible to all who live in them."

Concentration Improves

In the general population, studies have shown that viewing "green spaces" is likely to ease brain fatigue, restore drifting attention, and sharpen thinking. The same results have been shown for children with attention deficits.

Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2008 book Last Child in the Woods. It’s a play on attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Louv claims that "nature-deficit disorder" is not a medical diagnosis, but a metaphor to describe what he believes are "the human costs of alienation from nature." Louv and many researchers have reported that children with ADHD seem to focus better after being outdoors and suggest that outdoor activity could have positive effects on the condition.

A study conducted at the University of Illinois found that children with ADHD scored higher on a test of concentration after a walk through a park than after a walk through a residential neighborhood or downtown area. The study author, Kuo claimed,

"We don't know what it is about the park, exactly - the greenness or lack of buildings-that seems to improve attention, but the study tells us that even though we kept everything else the same and we just changed the environment, we still saw measurable differences in children's symptoms."

In another study, students were given a forty-second break from mundane computer work, then told to resume their work after the break. The students who viewed "greenery" made fewer errors and demonstrated higher levels of concentration than the group of students that saw a plain concrete roof.

Many of us have trouble concentrating at times, so try stepping outside in the "greenest" area you can find for a boost in focus and creativity. Dr. Jenny Roe, a psychologist and researcher at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, states,

"Even viewing green spaces from your office window may have a restorative effect and help with attention fatigue and stress recovery."

You Heal Faster

Illness and surgery can be painful and frightening, which can increase the stress you feel and delay the healing process. Therefore, stress reduction is recommended as part of recovery from surgery and illness. Strolling outside or gazing at nature has been shown to lower stress levels, which may strengthen the immune system and encourage healing.

An early study conducted by psychologist Roger Ulrich was one of the first studies to demonstrate how gazing at a garden can sometimes speed healing from surgery, infections, and other ailments. His study reviewed medical records of people recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. There were statistically significant differences between length of stay, pain medication use, and nurse notes. Patients with a view of tress were hospitalized shorter (8 days) than patients with view of a brick wall (nine days). Brick wall patients had more negative nurse notes ("upset and crying" and "needs encouragement") than the tree patients ("in good spirits" and "moving well"). Patients with nature window views received fewer analgesic does 2-5 days after surgery and received weaker pain medications (i.e. aspirin and acetaminophen) than the brick wall-view patients (i.e.narcotics).

In another study, Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a forest-therapy expert and researcher at Chiba University in Japan, found that people who spent 40 minutes walking in a cedar forest had lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that is involved in blood pressure and immune-system function, compared with when they walked 40 minutes in a lab. Dr. Miyazaki coined the term “forest bathing” to coincide with the results of his research regarding the medical benefits of being in nature.

Another researcher, Dr. Qing Li, a professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, found that trees and plants produce aromatic compounds called phytoncides that, when inhaled, can stimulate healthy biological changes in a manner similar to aromatherapy. In his studies, the people that walk through or stay overnight in forests, exhibited changes in the blood that are associated with protection against cancer, better immunity, and lower blood pressure.

Nature has been shown to be so powerful with healing a variety of health ailments that physicians are starting to write "nature prescriptions" for their clients. In 2018, NHS Shetland, a government run hospital system in Scotland, began allowing doctors at 10 medical practices to write "nature prescriptions" that promote outdoor activities as a routine part of patient care.

Being outdoors is not going to cure cancer or heal a badly burned arm or leg, but there is growing evidence that it can reduce levels of pain and stress, and by doing that you boost your immune system in ways that allow your body to perhaps fight off disease and enhance the healing process.

Take Home

Find time today to step outside in the "green" and take advantage of the health benefits being in Mother Nature provides. Replace time spent inside on electronic devices with a bike ride, hike, or walk in a local park. Try gardening as a new hobby. And don't forget that this can be done solo, with a furry friend, or enjoyed by the whole family!

There's no wrong way to get outside and so much can be gained by the exploration. Especially this time of the year, when the air chills 20 degrees as the sun starts to set and the darkness sets earlier in the day - take the time for yourself. Your body, mind, and soul will thank you for it.

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