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Hug a tree, just for health of it

February 9, 2011
By Joe Hackett, News Outdoors Columnist
I try to enjoy winter as much as any area resident and I usually can’t wait to get out to ski or skate, sled or slide. However I don’t believe shoveling snow offers any intrinsic recreational value, even though it has become my primary winter activity. I shovel my way from the house to the car, and from the car back to the house.

The wonderful winter wonderland is beginning to wear me out. I now fully understand the principle behind the creation of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival.  Area residents need an escape from the monistic monotones of winter, but only by embracing the white bear of winter is the season truly bearable.



Trails lead to a smart, happy and healthy lifestyle

The U. S. Forest Service, in partnership with the National Association of State Foresters and the American Forest Foundation, has recently announced the national celebration of the official United Nations International Year of Forests 2011. The theme of the campaign is “Celebrate Forests. Celebrate Life.”

With this in mind, I’ve been researching the health benefits of the outdoor life and the healing and recuperative effects of the forest environment. I took up the task recognizing the risk of being labeled a greenie, tree hugger or worse.

I was fairly certain that I knew the results before I began my research, but sometimes we need confirmation for certain things that are more or less common sense.

Research included publications such as the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and The Lancet, where I uncovered studies that had been conducted at institutions including University of Glasgow, University of St Andrews, Center for Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University, University of Rochester Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic.

I’m pleased to report that the results largely confirm what many local residents already know: Life in the woods is good for the heart, mind and soul.

It should come as no surprise. Forests are the primary source of clean air and a gigantic fresh-air factory surrounds us. We have quick and easy access to nearly limitless green space, which has proven benefits for our physical, mental and community health.

“I am almost within sight of the ‘Adirondack Cottages for the Treatment of Pulmonary Disease.’ In that establishment, patients enjoy the advantages of this harsh but pure and antiseptic air, of pleasant lodging in fine scenery, of a generous diet, continual open air and carriage exercise.”

— R. L. Stevenson, Saranac Lake, 1888

Dutch researchers have recently discovered that people living close to nature are healthier and suffer less anxiety and depression. Evidence indicates that people who live in more urban environments had a higher prevalence for 15 of the 24 conditions, with the relationship strongest for anxiety.

Green space increases exposure to natural sunlight, which is linked with a lower incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorder and an increase in vitamin D, which can elevate mood and improve muscle strength. Open space also provides greater opportunities for fresh air and exercise, which can influence mood and relieve stress.

Dr. Richard Ryan, professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester, co-authored a recent study that reveals people exposed to natural elements are more socially oriented, more generous and value community more.

Another experiment he was involved in found that people who spent time outdoors had more vitality and energy. The studies indicate that increased green space may be the best way for whole communities to become healthier.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.”

— Anne Frank

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that children who are more active outdoors and hang out outdoors tend to engage in greater physical activity as youth and later as adults. It has also been shown that children as young as 5 have shown a significant reduction in the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) when they are engaged in outdoor activities in natural settings.

At the University of Michigan, research reveals that taking a nature walk can sharpen the mind. However, walking around the city does not have the same effect.

For the study, participants took walks in both urban and rural settings and upon return their memories and attentions were tested. Those who took nature walks scored 20 percent better on the tests. No improvement occurred after urban walks.

Walking in nature provides our mind with a break. Just as it functions better after sleep, walking in a natural environment allows the mind to relax, which allows you to think more clearly.

Open space environments can positively affect both our mental health and physical well-being, according to a study at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Children who live in areas with more green space have a lower likelihood of being obese. Access to green space is believed to encourage children and adults to get outdoors and walk, run and play.

“I remember a hundred lovely lakes, and recall the fragrant breath of pine and fir and cedar and poplar trees. The trail has … given me blessed release from care and worry and the troubled thinking of our modern day. It has been a return to the primitive and the peaceful. Whenever the pressure of our complex city life thins my blood and benumbs my brain, I seek relief in the trail; and when I hear the coyote wailing to the yellow dawn, my cares fall from me — I am happy.”

— H. Garland- McClure’s, February 1899

Doctors are now providing prescriptions for a walk in the park to aid patients’ health. Regular walking has been proven to reduce the risk of a heart attack by 50 percent, diabetes by 50 percent, colon cancer by 30 percent and fracture of the femur by up to 40 percent. 

Simply walking can make you smarter. Additional studies indicate that activities such as hiking and jogging help stimulate blood flow to the brain to help ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

It is important to note that the outdoor life is not all about such high-adventure, high-risk sports as ice climbing, trail running or whitewater rafting.

In fact, the most popular outdoor participation activities are walking and hiking, and surveys indicate that nearly 64 percent of all adults prefer hiking or walking above all other outdoor activities.

Regardless of where you live in the Adirondacks, an opportunity for a short hike is located no further away than a 10-minute drive. 

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
Research has proven that people living close to nature are healthier and suffer less anxiety and depression.

 
 

 

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