Photo credit: ©2015 J Fries

Photo credit: ©2015 J Fries

If you’ve been following us on twitter and Instagram during the month of May you’ll have noticed pictures of nature and the hashtags #NatureIsCalling and #30x30challenge. The David Suzuki Foundation challenges us to be active and get out and enjoy nature for 30 minutes each day during the month of May.

Over the past three years, the 30×30 Challenge has inspired tens of thousands of individuals and hundreds of workplaces and schools to cultivate the nature habit. They took to the great outdoors, doubling their time spent outside. Our research showed that participants were sleeping better, felt calmer and less stressed. Impressive results for a half hour a day! ~ 30×30 Challenge

Participants are encouraged to post their pictures, video and stories each day using the hashtags #30x30challenge and #NatureIsCalling and to tag @DavidSuzukiFDN. Each week a draw is made for a sponsored themed prize.

We already know fresh air and exercise are good for our physical health but many of us forget that it’s equally important for our mental health as well. Studies have shown that people suffering with depression and anxiety can find significant relief by engaging in nature and exercise.

The Minding Our Bodies project was started by the Canadian Mental Health Association in Ontario Canada and ran from 2008-2013.  They were partnered with Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, Nutrition Resource Centre, YMCA Ontario and York University.

The goal of the project was to change how we treat Mental Health problems by also promoting physical activity and healthy eating for people with serious mental illness to support recovery. Why? Because that’s the direction the evidence points.

In March 2013 Elizabeth Lines, a health promotion consultant provided the following facts:

  • Total annual health care spending in Canada is now over $200 billion (CIHI, 2012); in Ontario, health care spending consumes over 40 percent of the provincial budget. Finding ways to contain health care spending is a priority.
  • Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide (WHO, 2012) and a leading contributor to the economic burden of disease.
  • Chronic stress is pervasive, and related to depression and the development of chronic disease.

She goes on to talk about studies showing the positive effects of nature simply from viewing it.

For example, Ulrich (1984) found that hospital patients who could view the outdoors through a window recover from surgery faster than those with restricted views; that students who watched a stressful film recovered faster in a natural setting (Ulrich, 1991); and that prisoners with a view of nature show stress symptoms less frequently (Moore, 1981)

In another study from Sweden being in nature also showed marked health benefits.

A Swedish study of the rehabilitative impact of nature on crisis response found that the simple experience of being in nature was most rehabilitative for those experiencing the highest levels of stress. Walking in nature also had a positive effect, though the difference was not as great. For those experiencing low-to-moderate stress levels, social interactions in the natural setting contributed more to stress reduction (Ottoson and Grahn, 2008).

Studies have even shown interactions with nature can improve attention and we seem to be in short supply of attention spans.

Some findings suggest that the benefits to attention of walking in parks are greatest for those with the greatest deficits. Along with attention improvements, walking in nature as opposed to an urban setting reduced anger, improved positive affect, and reduced blood pressure (Hartig, Evans, Jamner, et al., 2003).

All this amazing evidence lead to the question what about putting nature and exercise together?

In a systematic review of 11 studies comparing the effects of activity (walking or running) in an outdoor natural versus indoor environment, Thompson Coon, Boddy, Stein, et al. (2011) found that many of the self-report findings suggested greater improvements to mental well-being (moods, feelings) from outdoor than indoor activity. Benefits included “greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy.… Participants reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and declared a greater intent to repeat the activity at a later date” (p. 1761). However, the authors caution that these measures were taken following single episodes of exercise, with unknown effects on adherence; moreover, methodologies tended to be weak and varied, making it difficult to compare results and interpret findings. Participants again were usually young adults, with an average age of 25 years.

While not all the findings so far are definitive, it’s fairly certain that at least some level of benefit is derived. The website and Literature review are worth reading in their entirety. The Literature Review also lists all the sources of studies and various useful links.

It’s beneficial all around. It’s inexpensive. In most cases it’s easy to do. Where I live it’s really easy. I live with over 160 acres of nature surrounding me yet there are days where I still have to force myself. Maybe the weather isn’t inviting or I’m feeling guilty about a too long to do list. Whatever the reason often I’m pushing myself out the door.

This challenge and some nice spring weather have made the commitment easy. Walking the trails around me every day made me intently aware of the subtle changes that happen around me that I don’t notice. How one day there were patches of tiny violets where the day before there was barely a patch of green showing amongst the leaf debris from last fall.

One morning I commented that the tiny buds on the native aspen trees would soon burst into green. When I walked along that afternoon the buds had burst open during those few short hours creating a green shadowing  in all the treetops. Noticing subtle changes, seeing the process rather than just the result has been an unexpected reward of this challenge.

I’ve also realized that by the time I’m done I’ll have a nature streak of 30 days! Somehow that feels validating. And once I have a streak going I’d really hate to break it. So just maybe I’ll have formed a healthy habit and I won’t feel guilty even on the busiest of days. Summer certainly makes it easier. Gardening, outside chores, lazy days at the lake. Hoping the momentum will also carry me through the long cold months we experience.

The Literature Review ends with a sobering thought,

According to 2011 census data, more than 86 percent of Ontarians live in urban areas. Meanwhile, the natural environment continues to be degraded or eliminated by advancing urban and suburban sprawl, commercial/industrial land use and climate change; natural settings are disappearing.

While leaving the door open for real change.

The challenges are great. But, perhaps the mounting evidence that a “dose” of nature is good for health will contribute to the preservation and maintenance of the natural environment, as well as directly improve quality of life and reduce the health care burden.

They also have their final evaluation reports available online here.

I’m learning to love nature in all it’s forms, in all it’s seasons. It’s fun, it’s good for my mind and it’s good for my body. Are you ready to play?

Sound like a great idea but think you don’t have time or aren’t close enough to nature? Here are some ideas to get you thinking.

  • Map out where the green spaces in your area are and plan a visit to each one
  • Plant a flower box garden on your balcony
  • Find a community garden group and become a member
  • Local greenhouses or public atriums are a great place to visit and relax
  • Start a community group to create or refurbish a green space

With a little creativity you’d be amazed how much time and nature you can enjoy starting right now.

©2015 JFries/Rise Like Air

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