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Nature Is Medicine

By Caroline Varriale DPT, FAFS

I feel extremely fortunate to have grown up in the rolling hills of the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. My childhood was spent largely outdoors, and I cherish fond memories of playing for hours in the woods, running along dirt roads, swimming in fresh creeks and lakes and being barefoot for the entire summer.

In contrast, I’ve spent most of my adulthood in urban areas, and I’ve recently been thinking about how the environment affects my overall health, happiness and physical activity.

Especially when the weather starts to gets nice, I crave the outdoors deeply. I know instinctively that it feels good to be in nature, but I didn’t realize that the research is there to support its many benefits!

Human beings have always evolved in nature and with nature — well, we have until now. When the earliest cities began to develop in Egypt in the 18th century, only a small number of people lived there, and most still resided in rural areas.

In the last 150 years, however, the speed at which cities are growing throughout the world has drastically increased. It is estimated that about 66% of the world’s population will reside in urban areas by 2050. The rapid growth of cities presents a challenge not only to urban, environmental, housing and transportation planning agencies, but also to our health, lifestyle habits and health care system.

Living separate from nature and reducing contact with the outdoors can have lasting detrimental effects on our health and the health of future generations. Ensuring that green spaces are built into and maintained in our cities, and that our personal and professional lives include frequent, quality time in nature is therefore crucial to our well-being.

Research indicates that spending time in nature provides a multitude of health benefits, including:

  • Improved short-term memory and mental energy: Individuals who walk through trees or a wooded area instead of down a city street have been shown to score better on testing, and even just looking at pictures of nature versus pictures of an urban setting causes people’s energy for mental concentration to bounce back more quickly.
  • Stress relief: Multiple studies show that circulating levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are decreased substantially when individuals are in nature. People also report elevated moods after being outdoors.
  • Lowering of blood pressure and heart rate: Exposure to nature yields a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate, and these health parameters fall in direct correlation with increased duration and frequency of time spent outdoors.
  • “Earthing” decreases inflammation: Touching the ground with bare hands and feet has been shown to have therapeutic effects on mood, stress, skin healing and inflammation. Free electrons from the Earth have direct antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on our bodies, and most modern chronic illnesses are linked to inflammation.
  • Boosting the immune system: Levels of immune cells and traditional signs of acute inflammation following injury have been shown to normalize more quickly with exposure to nature. Additionally, increased levels of Vitamin D and parasympathetic nervous system activity bolster our immune system and lower our susceptibility to illness.

Reading through the evidence on nature’s powerful influence on our health has made me even more excited for summer in New York. I already have plans for camping trips, hikes, beach days and long bike rides and runs — but this makes me want to do more!

I urge you to take a close look at the amount and frequency of quality time you spend outdoors. Here are a few suggestions of how to work nature into your routine:

  • If you don’t already exercise outdoors, consider changing environments for the warmer months (don’t worry, Equinox will still be there next winter).
  • It’s also important to remember that leisurely, non-structured time in nature is just as (or more) important. Forget your Garmin and your phone, just grab a friend and enjoy a walk in the park!
  • Consider day or weekend trips to hike, camp or just relax in upstate New York and the tri-state area. Rent a car or take the train – you won’t regret it!
  • Summer is the season of farmer’s markets and CSA shares. Connecting with a local farm for your fresh veggies (and visiting them!), or even just making it a priority to shop at the farmer’s market in your neighborhood and cook seasonal foods will increase your exposure to nature and its health benefits.

Although this discussion may cause you to react with “well yes, of course, I knew that,” I will remind you that knowing doesn’t always correlate with doing. We are New Yorkers, and we get busy in our routines. Take a close look at yours, and be sure to include plenty of time outside in the next few months! You may be pleasantly surprised at what it does to boost your mood and energy, injury recovery and prevention, training and overall happiness.

Caroline Varriale attended Boston University for her undergraduate studies and received her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Duke University. She has been with Finish Line PT since 2013. In addition to running, Caroline enjoys varying her workouts with biking, resistance & strength training, plyometrics and yoga.

References
Aspinall, P., Mavros, P., Coyne, R., & Roe, J. (2015). The urban brain: analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG. Br J Sports Med, 49(4), pp. 272-276.
http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/49/4/272

Friedman, L.F., and Loria, K. (2016, April 22). 11 scientific reasons you should be spending more time outside. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/scientific-benefits-of-nature-outdoors-2016-4/#1-improved-short-term-memory-1

Gladwell, V. F., Brown, D. K., Wood, C., Sandercock, G. R., & Barton, J. L. (2013). The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extreme Physiology & Medicine, 2(3). http://doi.org/10.1186/2046-7648-2-3

Oschman, J. L., Chevalier, G., & Brown, R. (2015). The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Journal of Inflammation Research, 8, pp. 83–96. http://doi.org/10.2147/JIR.S69656

Shanahan, D.F. et al. (2016). Health benefits from nature experiences depend on dose. Scientific Reports (6)28551.

University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. (2015, September 16). Immune system may be pathway between nature and good health. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150916162120.htm

Williams, F. (2016). This is your brain on nature. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild

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