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Get Outside! It’s Good for Body and Mind

May 11, 2012

Credit: oliveheartkimchi
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Maybe you took to heart my recent post about the health dangers of sitting too much.

Now it’s time to think about getting outside.

A substantial body of research affirms the numerous health benefits of spending time in natural settings: walking in woods or urban parks, canoeing down a river, tending a vegetable garden, meandering along a coastline or a lake shore.

Researchers have found that spending time in nature strengthens a person's immune system, reduces stress hormones, lowers blood pressure, and improves social interactions. Furthermore, it may improve learning and increase empathy.

Even a dose of five minutes improves our sense of wellbeing.

What’s more, creating green spaces such as parks and community gardens in urban residential environments reduces crime (especially gun violence), decreases domestic violence, stimulates positive social interactions, strengthens family connections. 

Even hospital patients exposed to green spaces through their windows (rather than parking lots) have better clinical outcomes. They experience less fear, anxiety and anger. They have lower blood pressure and need fewer medications. 

Biophilia: Human health may depend on connecting with nature

Biol­o­gist Edward O. Wil­son and others have hypothesized that a deep affinity they call biophilia exists between humans and other liv­ing sys­tems. Proponents of the hypothesis suggest that a connection with the the plants and animals around us, including those species too small to see, is essential to our physical and mental health and productivity. 

Public health advocates around the world have begun advocating immersion in nature for health. For example:

  • The Japanese have studied the specific effects of shinrin-yoku, “forest bathing,” for health.
  • Scandinavians have begun promoting their 150 year-old tradition of friluftsliv—which roughly translates into “outdoor living and recreation”—for health purposes.
  • Green Gym, a movement  movement started by a medical doctor in Great Britain in 1997, combines outdoor physical fitness with conservation work.

Play in the Dirt!

Another line of provocative research suggests that inhaling or ingesting a common, non-harmful soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, in natural settings may activate brain chemicals whose effects are similar to antidepressants. 

Further resedarch suggests that contact with the bacteria may even improve learning. As adults, perhaps we need to mimic our children’s instinctive behavior by getting out to play or walk in the dirt and make mud pies.

The buzzword connectivity describes the technological innovations that connect us 24/7 to our electronic communication devices. Yet with all the research associating improved health with spending time in the natural world, we all might want to consider unplugging and re-establishing a deeper connection with that world outisde our windows.

A final point worth pondering: What we don’t know and experience directly and intimately, we have little motivation to care for. How can we expect future generations to understand and protect our common natural environments if young people rarely go out and experience them?

Learn more

Green Gym

Forest Bathing

Can immersion in nature make us more empathic and caring of others?

Health Benefits of Gardens in Hospitals

Hot off the presses: Lack of contact with nature increasing allergies

Husband's tribute garden keeps love, roses growing

 


Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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Comments

Margaret I love reading your

By kathy hatfield

Margaret I love reading your column so much. Can get alot of good advice from you. I to have chickens and a vegetable garden. I see where you swim in your backyard pond. Can you give me any insight on how to begin with this project? Thanks so much

Thanks for the kind words,

By Margaret Boyles

Thanks for the kind words, Kathy. It's always heartening to hear from one of the tribe.

I assume you want some information about how to go about building a backyard pond, rather than learning to swim.

If somewhere on your property stays swampy all summer long, you may have a good site for a pond. You'll need a permit from one or more state agencies, and perhaps also from local zoning authorities. Consult your state's environmental resources department (they'll have a water resources and/or wetlands division) for help locating just which permits you'll need.

We use our pond for recreation, wildlife attraction, and for pumping water (way uphill) to irrigate our various vegetable gardens. It's a great asset to your lives.

P.S. Here's a (somewhat intimidating) government manual. http://www.in.nrcs.usda.gov/pdf%20files/PONDS.PDF

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