Studies have shown that children who spend quality time outdoors have lower stress levels, more success in school, and fewer symptoms of ADHD. And, exercise outdoors has proven to reduce the risk of a heart attack by 50 per cent, diabetes by 50 per cent, colon cancer by 30 per cent, and fracture risk (of the femur) by up to 40 per cent in adults. In addition, absorption of Vitamin D through sunlight exposure, has proven to be beneficial in lowering the risks of cancer and depression.
Most of us spend the majority of our lives indoors—at work, at school, eating meals, sleeping—all largely indoor activities. Yet, access to fresh air can improve our physical and mental wellness from without by encouraging exercise and play, and from within by cleaning our lungs, increasing the oxygen capacity of our blood, and balancing our hormones. Time spent outdoors boosts vitamin D levels and decreases cortisol in the blood leading to countless positive effects on our physiology.
The study of environmental psychology has introduced us to the hidden benefits of exposure to the great outdoors—just being in nature is calming. People who consistently comingle with nature enjoy more emotional balance, a greater sense of satisfaction with life, increased well-being, and lower rates of reported anxiety and depression. And, children who are raised to incorporate outdoor activities into their daily recreation are less likely to be overweight and more likely to be academically successful.
Our physiology responds positively to fresh air and sunlight in multiple ways. Fresh air clears the lungs, enhancing the absorption of oxygen into the bloodstream and improving oxygenation of tissues. This will increase mental clarity, exercise tolerance, energy, and the immune system’s ability to respond to challenges. In addition, deeper, more effective breathing improves regulation of the cardiovascular system and decreases anxiety (see April 2008 Healthletter: Your Next Breath). And, increasingly, studies of the benefits of healthy vitamin D levels are showing that it not only improves bone health, but also helps to protect against chronic diseases such as cancer, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and autoimmune disease. Lastly, exposure to natural light stimulates the pineal gland. The products of this important hormonal regulator can improve the quality of your sleep, and balance the rest of your endocrine functions including your metabolism, your menstrual cycle, your libido, your energy, and the stability of your blood sugar. All of this just from getting a little fresh air! What a deal! And these benefits do not disappear when the clouds are out. So, get yourself and your kids outdoors this winter. Take advantage of the healing power of nature.
The beginning of fall is the perfect time to get outdoors with a friend, spouse or your children. The temperature is not too hot, the air is crisp and fresh, and the apples are ripe for the picking. Here in Oregon, opportunities to experience nature are at a peak this time of year-open air markets, hiking, orchard picking, maize mazes, outdoor festivals all continue straight through October. But, it is also a perfect time to brainstorm how to keep that healthy level of outdoor activity going through the winter.
Here are some of our ideas:
If you are a parent, require outdoor play on a daily basis. Model this behavior for your kids-that will have a greater impact than telling them to do it. Take them outside to splash in puddles, pack a picnic and eat at the local park (most have shelters to protect you from the rain), put on a rainproof jacket and take a hike (you’ll get a lot less wet walking under the trees in the forest), spend time cultivating your garden. Rain and mud-soaked games of flag football are a fall classic! If not for this, what else is hot chocolate good for?
On the dry days, you know what to do. fire up the grill and eat outside, rake the leaves and jump around in them, take the dog for an extra long walk, bike to and from work, organize a neighborhood sporting event, take in an outdoor concert, go fruit picking, or set up the tent and sleep under the stars.
Volunteering is a great way to move around and be outside. Look for local chapters of Habitat for Humanity, pull out invasive plants from the forest trails near your home or join a group like Hands on Portland.
- If it is cold, put on layers. Don’t forget your hat, it holds in the heat.
- If it is wet, bring an umbrella and rain gear.
- If you are tired, do it anyway. It will energize you.
- If you are too busy, make time. It will make you more efficient all day long.
Getting outside regularly is this important! So, turn off the TVs and the computers. Throw out that jam-packed schedule. Put aside those chores and errands. Go out and take a hike. You and your loved ones will be grateful you did. These experiences are the fodder for lifelong memories.
Surviving a little adversity from the elements brings people closer. Ask anyone who has ever participated in an outdoor adventure trip. And, teach your enthusiasm for the outdoors to your children, it is an investment in their future health.
This dynamic hormonal dance explains why it is so hard to be in good hormonal and mental/emotional balance if you work night shifts. The darkness, in its effect on melatonin, plays a crucial role in good sleep. Sleeping in a room with lots of light will not suffice for the type of health restoration we are seeking. And, trying to avoid sleeping when it is dark outside will disturb your natural hormonal rhythms.
Portland is an outdoor-friendly environment. The city and surrounding area offer year round options for adults, children and families. Try some of these links for ideas in the Rose City:
- Portland Hill Walks: Twenty Explorations in Parks and Neighborhoods
by Laura O. Foster
Portland Hill Walks is no ordinary guidebook. No restaurant ratings, no
rehashed explanations of how the city got its name. Instead, in twenty
meandering, view-studded strolls from forested canyons to cityscape
peaks, this lively travelogue answers…
- 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles Portland 3RD Edition
by Paul Gerald
The authoritative guide to Portland’s best day hikes just got better —
updated maps, new hikes, new photos, and brand-new trailhead coordinates
— provided as UTM and latitude/longitude formats — make this guide
even more useful than before.
If you live outside Portland, try searching for books on outdoor activities at Amazon.com.
Or, if you are looking for other people to share in some outdoor adventures, google “outdoor clubs.”
We hope you found this information helpful. We strive to help our patients find a healthy way in the world. If you have topics you’d like us to address in future issues please let us know. We are always available for questions and comments.
The Physicians of Bambú Clinic