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April 22, 2020 Is Earth Day

Published: April 1, 2020

It’s the 50th anniversary of this annual global event that calls for protection of our precious environment, a time when we give back to Mother Nature … because nature gives so much to us!

These days as we are advised to avoid unnecessary contact with other people, many of us also might avoid cabin fever by getting into the natural environment. Most of us are familiar with the traditional idea that spending time among trees, wildflowers or in the beautiful desert benefits the spirit. When we were kids, if Mom caught us moping around the house she would say, “Get outside and play! It will cheer you up.” Even as adults, we hear, “You look tired—why don’t you go out for a breath of fresh air?”

Recent studies show that spending time in nature benefits people, most particularly older adults, in many ways:

It improves our overall health. People with access to nature remain more active and engaged with life. In addition, exposure to sunlight helps the body make vitamin D, which is so important for health. A University of Chicago study even found that living in a neighborhood with trees can lower our stress level and our blood pressure.

It increases energy. “Nature is fuel for the soul. Often when we feel depleted, we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature,” reported the University of Rochester researcher Richard Ryan. “The very presence of nature helps to ward off feelings of exhaustion and 90% of people report increased energy when placed in outdoor activities.”

It encourages us to exercise our body and spirit. University of Minnesota researchers revealed that spending time in green spaces—and also in “blue spaces” near oceans, streams, and ponds—has overall benefit for seniors. A beautiful desertscape, too, can be motivating. Said lead author Jessica Finlay, “Accessibility to everyday green and blue spaces encourages seniors to simply get out the door. This, in turn, motivates them to be active, which can offset chronic illness, disability, and isolation.”

It promotes brain health. A study published by the Association for Psychological Science found that interacting with nature improves memory performance and attention span by 20%. And a study from the University of York in England showed that spending time in nature reduces harmful stress. The research team equipped a group of seniors with a wearable EEG device that measured their brain activity as they moved around the city. The brain scans showed that as the seniors entered parks and planted areas, their brains became calmer and quieter.

It improves sleep. University of Illinois researchers reported that older adults who have access to natural surroundings sleep better. Said study author Prof. Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, “If there is a way for persons over 65 to spend time in nature, it would improve the quality of their sleep—and their quality of life—if they did so.”

It fights depression. Seniors are at higher risk of depression, which can lead to a spiral of decline. Spending time in a natural setting, taking in the sights, smells and sounds that we humans evolved to love, can lift the mood and give us a sense of perspective about life. For centuries, spending time in nature has been prescribed for emotional health. Said Jason Conover of Utah Valley Psychiatry and Counseling Center, “There’s a quality to being connected to the earth at its most basic level that helps us feel peace and think about the big picture.”

So get out into nature. Bask in the sun. Breathe in fresh air or the smell of sage. Leave your smartphone and other technology behind. Sit by a stream or a fountain and relax. In times of stress, nature—our birthplace—provides a health boost.

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