August 25, 2015 is a very special birthday in the U.S: it’s Founder’s Day, the 99th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. In 1916, the United States became the first country in the world to set aside land to celebrate and commemorate majestic landscapes and significant people and their accomplishments. The national park system is an important part of the culture of the U.S., and celebrating Founder’s Day by visiting a national park is one way to make sure the national park system continues to grow and thrive.
Getting outside in nature doesn’t just preserve some of the most beautiful people and places in the U.S.: it actually makes you healthy.
In 2009, a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that living closer to nature makes you healthier. The Dutch study looked at the health records of over 345,000 people, searching for things like cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological diseases. They found that those who lived less than a mile from a green space were healthier overall and less likely to have anxiety or depression. Outside of a mile, incidence of health conditions rises, affecting poor people and children disproportionately.
Dr. David Rakel, director of integrative medicine and assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health finds the connection between distance to nature and health promising:
“It’s nice to see that it shows that, that the closer humans are to the natural environment, that seems to have a healthy influence.”
Just why being outside is so good for us is hard to pinpoint, but it may have to do with the importance of vitamin D. The “sunshine vitamin” has been linked to everything from building immunity to cancer prevention. Preliminary studies of vitamin D have indicated that it may play a significant role in:
- Cancer prevention: Recent studies have shown that vitamin D may prevent the growth and spread of cancer cells.
- Hormone regulation: Especially for mood disorders that are linked to fluctuating or unbalanced hormones, vitamin D may play a critical role in balancing hormones such as serotonin and estrogen.
- Diabetes prevention: Whether it is the addition of exercise in general that occurs when people get outside or vitamin D’s assistance in processing insulin is unclear. Either way, being outside helps to regulate and utilize insulin in the body.
- Inflammation: Being outside seems to reduce inflammation due to conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Vitamin D is found in foods like oily fish and leafy greens, but the fastest way to get it is to simply go outside. Ten minutes in the sun without sunscreen provides the same amount of vitamin D as 100 glasses of milk. As skin cancer is the deadliest and most common cancer, it is important to talk to your doctor before heading out without sunscreen, but sunscreen has been shown to block vitamin D absorption. If your doctor gives you the okay, a walk on a sun-dappled national park trail on Founder’s Day is a great way to boost your levels of vitamin D. Since the body stores vitamin D in fat cells, a walk on August 25th will have benefits that last for the whole week!
It may not just be the vitamin D, though. The simple act of stepping outside, away from the blueish glow of the screens that have come to dominate our lives, is enough to re-set our circadian rhythms, allowing us to get better sleep. The break from our on-the-go lifestyles helps us to slow down, de-stress, and spend some quality time alone or with a loved one.
Even just five minutes in a park with blue sky, green trees, and water has significant benefit. Jules Pretty and Jo Barton of the American Chemical Society analyzed ten studies of nearly 1,300 people and their activities and found that outdoor activities like hiking, gardening, and horseback riding lead to measurable improvements in physical and mental health after only five minutes. The biggest improvements were seen in the youngest participants and those with mental health issues, but all involved showed gains.
Barton believes that these short-term gains can indicate more long-term benefit:
“We know from the literature that short-term mental health improvements are protective of long-term health benefits. So we believe that there would be a large potential benefit to individuals, society and to the costs of the health service if all groups of people were to self-medicate more with green exercise.”
So what’s the best way to celebrate Founder’s Day?
1. Celebrate with a special event on August 25th
Use the National Park Service site to find special events marking Founder’s Day. Search by park or by state to find a celebration near you.
2. Get an annual pass
Annual passes are a great deal, and they are honored at all national park sites in the U.S. for one year. Passes are $80 each and may be obtained through the National Park Service website, via U.S. mail, or at the gate at many different park sites. The pass expires 12 months from the date of purchase.
3. Get an Access Pass
Created especially for those with disabilities, Access Passes are free lifetime passes that allow admission to over 2,000 national park facilities across the U.S. Sites such as Mt. Rushmore and the Badlands in South Dakota have abundant wheelchair-accessible ramps and paths to explore regardless of ability. This pass also offers extended amenities at some sites for things like swimming, camping, and boating. There is no age requirement for an Access Pass, but you will need to provide proof of a permanent disability, such as a doctor’s confirmation.
Founder’s Day is a great day to support the National Park Service and their efforts to help preserve and protect nature. How will you celebrate?