Exercise Nature

Let’s Go to the Park

Spending time in nature helps people feel measurably happier.  Of course, almost any relaxing activity can help relieve stress and help us feel happier.  There is just something special about being in nature that makes it one of the more effective ways to improve your health and happiness.

Being surrounded by green spaces and nature parks has been shown to lower stress, lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, buoy mood, and improve mental health.  When a trip to the park also involves walking or other forms of exercise, that’s a health bonus.

A recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research adds to the evidence and shows just how little time it takes to get the benefits of being outside in nature.  According to the study, spending just 20 minutes in a park is enough to improve well-being even if you don’t exercise.

For the study, researchers surveyed adults who visited urban parks during the summer and fall. They were given fitness trackers to measure physical activity but were not told what to do in the park or how long to stay. Each person also answered questions about their life satisfaction and mood, which were used to calculate a subjective well-being score before and after their park visit.

Of interest, physical activity was not necessary to increase well-being.  Of course, an abundance of research suggests that exercise is great for mental health.  No doubt exercise would have been a bonus.  However, for many people in the study, merely being in a green space seemed to be enough to spark a change.

In Lifestyle Medicine, spending time in nature is a recommended therapy for many conditions.  Perhaps “nature prescriptions” can now become the recommended first line of therapy as they already have in other countries.

If you missed my previous thoughts about “The Gifts of Nature” as medicine for the anxieties and worries of life, you will find more about why regular trips to the park can be a key element in a richer and more vibrant life.  Even winter days have their gifts.  To learn more read, “Can a Winter Walk Change Your Life?

On your next trip to a nature setting, increase your benefits by using physical activity as an extra dose of medicine.  Regular physical activity can:

  • Improve muscular fitness
  • Aid in the prevention of falls
  • Assist with weight management
  • Improve cognitive function in older adults
  • Prevent and help manage certain chronic diseases

            Besides helping build strong bones and muscles, regular physical activity also decreases the risk factors for type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and over a hundred more diseases.

Like some of you, I was a child in the days before Mr. Rogers and Pac-Man.  Instead of screen time and social media, I played outdoors with friends or picked flowers and mushrooms in the woods.  I was blessed to grow up where I spent time outdoors and many weekends in our family vegetable garden.  Screen time was at most an evening G-Rated family TV program.  The concept of limiting screen time was unknown. It was a time when life was simpler.

            Today, finding time to be outdoors can be challenging. Still, it is essential to our well-being. We have a natural instinct to engage with nature.  Without exposure to nature, we wither. With multiplying screens about us and less time outdoors, it’s easy to see why so many have developed symptoms of a nature-deficit disorder.

            Nancy Neighbors, MD

Thoughts from Dr. Robert Zarr

Founder of Parks Rx

            Just the other day I saw Michael, a 15-year-old patient of mine.  His 24-hour activity and food diary revealed 5 hours of screen time on a school night (split between X-box and TV), 2 slices of pepperoni pizza and watermelon-flavored powdered beverage for breakfast, hamburger (without lettuce or tomato) for lunch, and 4 slices of pepperoni pizza plus watermelon-flavored powdered beverage for dinner.  Michael suffers from asthma, obesity, and a nature deficit.  Unfortunately, this is typical of many adolescents.

Read more about Dr. Robert Zarr and his campaign to awaken the medical field to the benefits of a Park Rx.

The Birmingham Story

As a reminder of the possible health benefits, a Parks Rx sign will be installed in all Birmingham parks. Read more in The Birmingham Times and The University of Alabama in Birmingham News about fulfilling a need and why doctors see an importance for more time spent in nature.

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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