Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Take A Walk

I live on a street that is lined with mature chestnut trees. The leaves are off the branches right now, but when spring arrives our piece of the concrete jungle becomes a lush, green promenade. Someone, decades ago, had the foresight to plant those trees from the downtown core all the way to South Lake Union and those of us who live and work here today are reaping the health benefits, both psychological and physical.

Only one in 10 American teenagers spends any significant time at all outdoors on any given day, but that's twice as long as the typical American adult. Even younger children, those who supposedly need to "burn off excess energy," hardly spend any time at all outdoors with only around 30 percent of them doing it daily. These are sad facts, even tragic.

In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases -- including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines -- in people who lived within about a half mile of green space.

Going outside is not just about simply "burning off excess energy," it is about being healthier, happier human beings. For instance, researchers have found that urbanites who simply live on blocks with more trees show "a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income." It's not about weekend camping trips (although those are great), it's not about exercise (although that's important), and it doesn't have to be anything more "natural" than your local city park. Even hospital patients with views of trees out their windows tend to heal faster than those who don't. The benefits come simply from spending time near green spaces.

"People underestimate the happiness effect" of being outdoors, says (psychology professor Lisa) Nisbet. "We don't think of it as a way to increase happiness. We think other things will, like shopping or TV. We evolved in nature. It's strange we'd be so disconnected."

Strange indeed. I urge you to read the article for yourself. I'm particularly fascinated by what's going on in South Korea, a citizenry known for work stresses, digital addiction, and intense academic pressures. They are taking the research on being outdoors so seriously that they have developed three "healing forests," staffed with "health rangers," with another 34 forests on the way by the end of this year. 

Chungbuk University offers a "forest healing" degree program, and job prospects for graduates are good; the Korea Forest Service expects to appoint 500 health rangers in the next couple years . . . Programs include everything from prenatal forest meditation to woodcrafts for cancer patients to forest burials. A government-run "happy train" takes kids who've been bullied into the woods for two days of camping. A hundred-million-dollar healing complex is under construction next to Sobaeksan National Park.

Hopefully, this sort of insight is just down the road for us in America, but in the meantime, we can enjoy the benefits today and it really is as simple as going outside:

It may also make us nicer to ourselves. Stanford researcher Greg Bratman . . . scanned the brains of 38 volunteers before and after they walked for 90 minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street . . . The nature walkers, but not the city walkers showed decreased activity in the subgenus prefrontal cortex -- a part of the brain tied to depressive rumination -- and from their own reports, the nature walkers beat themselves up less. Batman believes that being outside in a pleasant environment . . . takes us outside of ourselves in a good way.

And it doesn't even take 90 minutes: even a 15 minute walk results in measurable changes in our physiology. It's not hard, it's not just for your kids, and it will make you happier. It might even save your life.

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