Get out! For the health of it.
It wasn’t too long ago when I would not have set foot outside during the winter. I could come up with a zillion excuses why I shouldn’t expose my body to the cold, dark (not really, but my perception) environment that existed beyond my little womb of a home. It also wasn’t too long ago when I would go for my daily power walk, fully plugged into my iPod with my self-made “exercise mix” blaring. And power walk I would. Who knows what I passed along the way? I certainly had no idea. At the time, I considered music my motivation. I made certain that every song I included allowed my heart rate to soar with each synchronized step. But what did I miss along the way?
I’ve come to find out that I passed by a lot during those daily power walks. And I’ve also come to find out that I passed unfair judgment on winter. Had I ventured out despite the nip in the air and the seeming barren appearance of the landscape, I would’ve discovered that winter is very much alive.
Sometimes it takes the wisdom of age to figure out this kind of stuff. Other times, as in my case (I assure you that I am not old enough to possess the “age-oriented” sort of wisdom … lol!) it just seems as though a light bulb finally turns on in your head and you decide to switch things up a bit. I’m grateful that I did just that because otherwise, yesterday would have been quite different.
You see, a couple of days ago we (my family) became aware of a rare bird sighting in our area. Because my 12-year-old son, Eric, lives for birding and is constantly on the lookout for new birds to add to his life list (a list of all of the species of birds that one has seen in one’s lifetime), we decided to pack up our gear early the next morning and go in search of the rare bird. It was in the 20’s (F) and mostly sunny. Not a bad day on the whole, but certainly not the type of day I would typically choose to stand outside, bare hands feverishly gripping binoculars, searching for elusive wildlife! Hey, but as you moms out there know, anything for “baby”!!!!
Once we arrived at the site of the reported rarity, we proceeded to stand relatively still for close to two hours as all eyes scanned the landscape for a flash of orange (the rarity was a Bullock’s Oriole – a bird that summers in the western United States and is found in Mexico during the winter – poor guy must have taken a wrong turn!). As I stood there silently watching, I noticed my surroundings. The thickets created a tangled background to some unkempt grass. Apple trees in the foreground surrounded by decaying apples leftover from an abundant harvest and no doubt what originally attracted the oriole to this place. A flock of geese sounding their horns while flying overhead in search of the next watering hole. Once the geese passed, the sound of smaller creatures rustling in the crisp fallen leaves and amongst the hibernating vegetation became evident. The simple beauty of Nature surrounded me. I felt focused and relaxed – almost as though I was in a deep meditative state. All human deadlines and worries were replaced with awe and gratitude.
How I felt that morning was not unusual. The positive effect of nature on overall health, including stress level, has been a hot topic as of late. Researchers have determined that when we spend time in our natural environment, our immune function is increased. For example, in one study in 2007, men who took two-hour walks in the woods over a two-day period had a 50-percent spike in levels of natural killer cells. A similar study in women found an increase in white blood cells that lasted a week, seemingly from their exposure to phytoncides in forest air (phytoncides are airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect them from rotting and insects.) An Australian study found that contact with nature positively impacts blood pressure, cholesterol, outlook on life and stress reduction.
The list of research findings on this subject goes on and on. The conclusions that have been drawn aren’t surprising to me, based on my own rather recent experiences with nature. But who thinks about nature as an actual therapeutic tool? Well, the Japanese, for one. In Japan, visiting nature parks for therapeutic effect has become a popular and is actually termed “Shinrin-yoku.” Not to mention the fact that, all around the world, hospitals and care facilities are incorporating healing gardens into their landscapes for this same reason.
Unfortunately, we never did get a glimpse of the Bullock’s Oriole yesterday morning. I did get a glimpse of something that is arguably far more valuable – the realization that taking time out of an otherwise busy life to step outside, be still, look, and listen can make me feel great, no matter what the season! Now that’s a good thing to have on my life list!
Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan. Tsunetsugu Y, Park BJ, Miyazaki Y. Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, 1 Matsunosato, Tsukuba, Ibaraki, 305-8687, Japan, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maller C, Townsend M, Ptyor A, Brown P, St Leger L. 2005.
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