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Feeling Stressed? Take it Outside!

We have reached the last in our series of articles about mindfulness practices. This month is all about mom’s advice to “go play outside!”

It’s not unusual to hear a mom tell the kids to go outside and play. That’s a great way to get them out of the house and out of her hair, but there’s actually a lot of science behind the benefits of movement in nature…both for the young and the young at heart.

Let’s start with some distinctions. “Indoor exercise” is not the same as “movement in nature.” To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with indoor exercise. Any time you can get your body moving, that’s a plus. So if you’re doing it, keep doing it! Just consider adding a little outdoor component.

And “being outdoors” is also different than “being in nature.” You can walk briskly down a couple city blocks and feel better than you would have if you had grabbed a soda or a candy bar. But that, too, is not the same as “movement in nature.”

Movement in nature is different than either exercise indoors or exercise outdoors for two main reasons. First, being out in nature provides novelty for your brain. Your brain likes that! It focuses on the sights and smells around you, and the ground under your feet. While it’s focused on those things, it is not thinking about your to-do list, your unfinished chores, or your upcoming day. If you’re running on the treadmill or walking on a paved city sidewalk, there’s not nearly as much novelty around you, or as much brain engagement required to keep you on your feet. Novelty is a great distraction for the brain.

Second, studies have shown that a 15-minute walk in nature decreases your stress hormone (called cortisol) by 16%. That’s a huge benefit from something simple, free, and non-pharmaceutical! Another interesting study by the University of Michigan showed that performance on memory and attention tests improved by 20% after subjects took a walk through an arboretum. No such benefit came from a walk down a busy street! Again, this activity engages the brain to focus on what is around it. This forces us out of our most primitive part of the brain (also known as the amygdala) and into our pre-frontal cortex (which is the rational, thinking, executive-function part of the brain). We make smarter decisions and evaluate our situation more clearly when we are working in this part of the brain.

Movement outdoors can be many things. You can play Frisbee with the kids, do some gardening, take the dog for a walk, or ride a bike. Just get out there and enjoy the beauty (and health benefits) that Michigan has to offer.

Doctors know that movement outdoors can have a marked impact on health. Dr. Stanley Haegert of North Ottawa Medical Group says, I’m always relieved when I learn that a new patient loves and spends time outdoors because I know that means we are likely to spend less time together dealing with problems like anxiety, depression, obesity and heart disease. Nature is strong medicine.”

There you have it! So make an effort to move outdoors for a few minutes every day. You’ll be amazed by the results!

Want to learn more about movement in nature, or any of the mindfulness practices we have covered in the last few months? Visit NorthOttawaWellnessFoundation.org for helpful tips, more science, and great ways to incorporate mindfulness practices into your overall health.

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