by Fred Goldstein, President and Founder – Accountable Health, LLC
Over the past few years there have been a number of studies that document the benefits of getting out in nature for both our physical and mental health. The Japanese call it “Shinrin-yoku”, which can be translated as “bathing in the forest”. Since the 1980’s, the Japanese have been exploring the effects of what they now call “Forest Therapy”.
It’s also been well documented that walking is beneficial for one’s health, but what are some of the specific benefits of walking or being out in nature?
One of the easily often-forgotten benefits to being outdoors is sunlight. Getting out into nature provides access to sunlight, which allows the body to produce vitamin D, while sitting inside all day can lead to vitamin D deficiencies.
There are also benefits to our eyesight. Looking at a computer, cell phone or television can cause Computer Vision Syndrome. Research shows that between 50% and 90% of people who work at a computer screen have at least some symptoms. Getting on the trail and looking over longer distances can prevent or even reverse Computer Vision Syndrome. Studies in children have shown that getting outdoors can reduce the rate of myopia or nearsightedness by a significant amount.
Getting out into the woods or other natural environments and hiking has always been something that makes me feel good. Many of us understand and have experienced the benefits. But is it more than a feeling?
In fact it is. There are a number of mental health studies that demonstrate the benefits of being in nature. Benefits include, improvements in attention span, creativity, short term memory, increased serotonin levels, as well as, lowering stress levels that result in anxiety and bad moods.
A major issue driving healthcare costs in the United States is the increasing costs associated with chronic diseases. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 86% of U.S. healthcare costs are associated with persons with one or more chronic diseases. These diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and others are preventable if we exercise, watch our diet, and stop smoking. The World Health Organization estimates that reducing these three risk factors would reduce inappropriate deaths from heart disease, diabetes and stroke by 80%.
Dr. Martha Grogan of the Mayo Clinic says that recent studies show that a sedentary lifestyle may increase the risk of heart attack almost as much as smoking does. The Surgeon General states “Increasing people’s physical activity level will significantly reduce their risk of chronic disease and premature death and support positive mental health and healthy aging.” The Surgeon General recommends 30 minutes per day of brisk walking to improve one’s health.
As a healthcare professional, I am well aware of healthcare’s costs and impact on the U.S. economy. In 2015, U.S. healthcare costs exceeded $3 trillion dollars (17.8% GDP), making it the single largest component of the U.S. economy. This number is staggering and it isn’t on a downward trend. As we consider whether we should invest time and resources into completing the Florida National Scenic Trail and the other nine incomplete National Scenic Trails, we should consider the many positive benefits of getting outdoors on our health and the potential impact on our country’s economic health.
If you haven’t already signed the petition to close the gaps on our National Scenic Trails, please visit www.hikingtrailsforamerica.org and www.friendsofthefloridatrail.org. Help make the trails continuous and safe for posterity.
Important Links to Reports and Studies:
CDC and Chronic Diseases – https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/overview/
World Health Organization – http://www.who.int/chp/chronic_disease_report/part1/en/
Surgeon General and Walking – https://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/calls/walking-and-walkable-communities/exec-summary.html
Computer Vision Syndrome – http://www.webmd.com/eye-health/computer-vision-syndrome#1
Walking in Nature and Depression – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3393816/
Forest Bathing and Stress – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22840583