Doctor’s orders: Get outside

By Terry Owen, Chapter Outings chair

What if you were told that there’s an inexpensive way to improve your mental, emotional and physical health, increase your creativity and help you lose the pandemic 15 pounds that some of us have put on? It turns out that nature has been clinically proven to be the right prescription for many of today’s ailments. Spending time in nature, whether you’re walking, hiking, biking, kayaking or merely sitting can improve your health in as little as 15 minutes. The good news is that you don’t need insurance, and being turned away because you have pre-existing conditions won’t be an issue.

Would you like the full-strength prescription? A study by the University of Exeter found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces such as local parks or other natural environments all at once or over several visits were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who didn’t. For many of us, we’ve always known that getting outdoors in nature was good for us, but this study helped quantify the minimum dosage. The study found that two hours each week is a realistic target and one that allows people to receive optimum benefits. In less than 20 minutes each day, you can improve your life, and there are no co-pays.

Many healthcare providers are embracing the back-to-nature paradigm. Park RX America and Prescription Trails are just two organizations that physicians can use to prescribe time in nature for their patients. Prescription Trails, which was founded in Albuquerque, can also be used over the counter and without a prescription by anyone looking for trails and walking areas that are tailored to their likes and abilities, including wheelchair rolling routes. These health-care-related programs are growing all over the U.S. and there are now over 70 provider-based nature prescription programs in more than 30 states, including New Mexico.

Side effects may include euphoria, decreased road rage, peace of mind and a longer life. So, there’s no better time to get outside for 20 minutes each day and reap some of these benefits:

It reduces depression. Being in Mother Nature heals you in so many ways, including your mental health. Multiple studies have linked nature walks with improved mental and emotional health. A University of Michigan study concluded that the combination of colors, scents, shapes and sensations all combine to lift your spirits.

You feel happier. According to one Finnish study, spending just 15 minutes sitting in nature helped people feel psychologically restored. Those results were even faster when they spent that time walking. Spending a minimum of 120 minutes each week provided optimum results, and more time spent outdoors incrementally enhanced the effect.

Nature can literally heal. A study by Harvard University showed that people exposed to more natural light healed faster from a spinal surgery and reportedly had less pain than others. It seems nature served as a natural drug for them because they also took fewer pain medications.

It prompts weight loss. Being outside may not be a magical diet pill all by itself, but it does tend to make exercise more enjoyable. What’s more, some aspects of outdoor exercise like hiking may help you lose weight in an unexpected way. Spending time at higher altitudes can speed up your metabolism and lower your appetite.

Your vitamin D supply improves. Spending time in the sun helps your body create vitamin D, a vitamin that studies have shown may help prevent cancer, osteoporosis, and heart attacks.

Nature limits your stress. Being in Mother Nature, even if just in your own neighborhood, can reduce stress in the body. Studies show spending time outdoors can lower your heart rate, a symptom of stress.

You age less painfully. Want to age gracefully? Going outside every single day may be the key. One study by the National Institutes of Health showed that 70-year-old participants who spent time outside every single day had fewer complaints of common aging pains (e.g., aching bones, not sleeping) at age 77 than those who didn’t.

It strengthens your immune system. A Japanese study showed women who spent six hours in the woods over a two-day period increased their white blood cells, which fight virus, and the boost lasted about a week after the experiment. As a bonus, these were also found to help fight cancer cells.

Help us fight Nature Deficit Disorder. Although Sierra Club outings have been suspended through February 2021 due to COVID-19, we encourage you to get outside to maintain the appropriate nature levels in your bloodstream.

There are numerous books and websites that provide information on hiking trails, rivers and mountains in New Mexico to help you find just the right outing. We are also offering a Hike of the Week, providing maps and directions to a hiking area somewhere in New Mexico each week. We hope to see you outside soon.

Photo by Susan Martin

Doctor’s orders: Get outside