Wednesday, April 22, 2015 is the 45th anniversary of the very first Earth Day. In 1970, then-Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with the idea of harnessing the anti-war energy of student demonstrations to tie it in with protecting the environment. Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring eight years earlier in 1962, and a 1969 oil spill moved Nelson to action. He recruited a Republican Congressman, Pete McCloskey, as co-chair and organized a “national teach-in” that drew 20 million people around the country.
This first bi-partisan Earth Day was the impetus for the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and also led to the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. Amidst all the chaos of war and the high consumption of non-renewable resources (and a looming oil crisis in the 1970s), Earth Day galvanized and mobilized a nation to recognize the importance of protecting and preserving the environment.
When we think of the environment, we often picture being out in nature. It’s no wonder. There are numerous research studies that cite the many benefits of spending time in nature, including:
- Walking in nature reduces depression
- Being in nature reduces stress
- The environment helps you meditate without meditating
- Nature makes you 50% happier
Spring is a logical time to have Earth Day. It is a time of birth and renewal and a great time to make positive changes for your physical and mental well-being. If you are feeling overwhelmed or in pain, now is the perfect time to get outside and get your hands dirty. Working in a garden, planting a tree, or even simply arranging flowers helps reduce stress in a variety of ways. This horticultural therapy is becoming more widespread as hospitals and occupational therapy facilities begin to incorporate gardens, greenhouses, and green spaces into their work with patients.
Take a walk in nature
A 2014 study by researchers at Edge Hill University in the UK found that walking has significant benefits not only for cardiovascular and physical health but also for mental health. Walking significantly reduced stress, lowered depression, and alleviated negative thoughts and emotions. Going for a walk with a friend boosted walkers’ feelings of social connection as well.
Gardening offers excellent, low-impact exercise suitable for all ages and health conditions. The benefits of gardening range from a decrease in colon cancer to improved cardiovascular health and lowered depression. For those suffering from arthritis in the joints that make holding gardening tools painful, special adaptive tools are available, along with stools and benches for easy access. Raised-bed or container gardens with wide paths are perfect for those who are wheelchair-bound or on crutches. If you are just getting started with gardening, there is plenty of advice online about how to make it easy, fun, and beneficial.
The research on the benefits of meditation is piling up. Combine these benefits with the vitamin D, fresh air, and boost you get from simply sitting outside in silence, and you have an unbeatable combination.
Beauty is healing in and of itself, but relaxing surrounded by beauty you have created yourself is a major bonus. Planting already-blooming flowers in addition to bulbs helps to mark the seasons, themselves a reassuring connection to the earth. Certain scented flowers and plants, like lavender and lemon balm, provide additional stress-relieving properties and have even been used to fight inflammation. Bringing these flowers indoors can be a visual reminder of the stress relief you felt outside.
In addition to the reasons listed above, there are other reasons that going outside in nature is important. Kids today are suffering from a deficiency of “vitamin N,” says Richard Low, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. In the book, Low lists some research-based indicators of nature deficit disorder:
- Children in 2014 spend less time playing outside than any generation previous to theirs, with free play time declining nine hours per week from 1981 to 2003
- Children between 8 and 18 spend an average of seven hours a day in front of a screen; that’s 42 hours per week
- Obesity in children has risen 16% from the 1960s to now
- A 2003 report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention found the 62% of children do not participate in any kind of organized sport
But these trends are reversible with some time spent in nature.
- A study by Kuo and Taylor in 2004 found that time in nature can ameliorate the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Even a view of green spaces helps “enhance peace, self-control, and self-discipline in inner city youth, particularly girls” (Taylor, Kuo, and Sullivan, 2001)
- Student achievement increases with time spent in nature
- And so many more studies that provide evidence that time in nature is beneficial to children
If you are struggling with a chronic physical or mental health issue, it can be difficult to take the first steps out in nature. If you need motivation to get started, look to your kids and their health. Start slowly with a short walk a day, then incorporate natural elements in your life as you get stronger. You can only benefit. You can also start by marking Earth Day at one of the many festivals and celebrations held all around the country.
How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?
Image by Andres Nieto Porras via Flickr