Friday, April 22 is Earth Day. Many look at this date on the calendar and continue about their daily routine, but this year it’s time to get outside to improve your health.

Earth Day 2016

The theme for Earth Day this year is “Trees for the Earth.” We take trees for granted, not usually thinking beyond shade, wood, and paper products, but spending time in the presence of trees can actually improve your health. Trees are beneficial to:

  • The environment: Trees clean the air we breathe, stabilize soil with their root system, provide mulch with their leaves, and provide habitat for myriad living creatures
  • The planet: Trees pull CO2 and other harmful gases and pollutants out of the air, combatting global warming and pollution

Trees are so important to the world that living near more of them can actually save your life.

Duke University analyzed four years’ worth of data on disease, climate, demographics, public health services and land use change within the Brazilian Amazon, one of the most famous forests in the world. Usually research focuses on the damage wrought by poor environmental conditions, but this study wanted to look at potential benefits of conservation and other nature-friendly environmental policies.

Subhrendu Pattanayak, a Duke professor of global health, environment, and public policy, and his colleagues found that disease near the most protected of the 700 municipalities they analyzed was sharply lower than those areas that allowed “sustainable use” practices. Malaria, acute respiratory infections, and diarrhea were much lower near protected areas.

Pattanayak and his team recognize that this data is just the beginning of looking at the benefits of strict environmental conservation but note that this research is foundational and important:

“Certainly the causal chain of environmental health is neither short nor simple. But my colleagues and I believe our methods and this study help add important links in this chain. As such, it strengthens…recent…calls for protecting nature to achieve health outcomes.”

Celebrating Earth Day, even in a city

Because we cannot all get out to the Amazon to feel the health benefits of the rainforest, many businesses have decided to bring the rainforest to us. Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital has planted Victory Greens Garden on its roof to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for patients and staff alike.

In addition to supplying the kitchen with fruits and vegetables from 250 plants, Victory Greens Garden is a place for stress reduction and relaxation. Dr. Robert Graham, director of integrative health at Lenox Hill started this garden with his wife, Julie, after seeing a dire need for staff to get more daily nature:

“We’re in Manhattan, we’re in a hospital, and there’s really no place for our doctors to go out and take a breath. This is a place for people to destress and connect with nature. It’s a restful place with a real sense of community.”

City dwellers may feel they have a harder time connecting to nature, but it turns out that connecting could be as easy as a stroll in the park. Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, has dedicated his research to studying how living in a city affects a person’s psychology. His first research found that simply walking in greenspace makes people happier than walking in congested areas.

For his second study, Bratman looked at the human tendency to brood. Brooding is the human habit of looking back at mistakes and poor choices and focusing on them nearly to obsession. This type of thinking can lead to depression, but Bratman wanted to know if getting outside could prevent, reverse, or stop negative neurological change.

Study participants answered questionnaires and had brain scans in their subgenual prefrontal cortex both pre- and post-walk. These scans looked for blood flow that would indicate increased brain activity in that area, a sign that brooding may be occurring.

The walkers who strolled in the park had better scans with less negative brain activity than those who walked along a highway, alone and with no headphones.

Combatting “nature deficit disorder”

Many people believe that our bodies crave nature and naturally want to be outside as much as possible. Richard Louv is the researcher who spoke up about nature deficit disorder, a chronic condition that may affect most people in the U.S. Just as it sounds, nature deficit disorder is a lack of regular contact with nature that can result in stress, irritability, and even vitamin deficiency.

The other side of this disorder is those people who get plenty of fresh air in nature. Kids who go outside more frequently get sick less often, and adults may find themselves more adaptable to any problems that arise.

Other health benefits of getting outside on Earth Day include:

  • Forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku in Japanese) lowers blood pressure and decreases stress hormone levels.
  • Those who spend more time outside are less likely to be obese. This applies to both adults and children.
  • Spending regular time in nature decreases anxiety and depression.
  • Forest bathing also boosts immunity.
  • Time spent in nature improves focus in adults and reduces ADHD symptoms in children.
  • For those experiencing sleepless nights, regular time spent outdoors at strategic times of day can help re-set the body’s circadian rhythm. This is the biological rhythm that responds to the level of light available every day (the reason why we get sleepy earlier in the winter).

Whether it is the time spent in nature being mindful, the physical activity that can happen when we are outside, or our biology responding to the sunlight, being outside has health benefits that go beyond just relaxation.

If you cannot go outside to plant a tree or celebrate our beautiful planet this Earth Day, check out what Mayo Clinic and Delos are doing to revolutionize our indoor environments.


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