Sunday, October 14, 2018

Weekly Inspiration: Get Out! Nature Improves Health

My husband and I enjoyed a few days last week camping in a beautiful state park with our pop-up camper. It's been a rough year for camping due to the awful weather and frequent storms (we cancelled 3 trips and had to cut this one short!), but just spending a few days outdoors was - as always - incredibly relaxing and rejuvenating. Just being outside, looking at the trees, and breathing in the fresh air provides instant peace. As a bonus, we visited two beautiful lakes (one just steps from our campsite). I find water outdoors especially tranquil and restorative. You can see some photos from our trip to these beautiful state parks in my Saturday Snapshot post at my book blog.

This earlier blog post, Camping and Enjoying the Outdoors with ME/CFS, explains how we manage our camping trips and time outdoors, with lots and lots of tips on how you can get out and enjoy nature, too. Even just looking out a window or lying outside in a reclining chair provides huge benefits. 

It's not just me. Many scientific studies have proven that nature and the outdoors are not only emotionally restorative but actually have positive effects on your physical health, too. My article, The Restorative Power of Nature, published on the ProHealth website last November, explains what science has discovered and how it can help us, with lots of tips on how YOU can reap those benefits, too, even if you are housebound or bedridden. The full text of the article is below (the link to the article on ProHealth is currently unavailable as they update their site):

The Restorative Power of Nature

Scientific studies have found that time spent in nature - even as little as 5 minutes - reduces stress, improves creativity, reduces self-criticism, and increases kindness (1,2). Spending time outdoors also has measurable physical effects, including reduced inflammation, improved mental clarity & memory, reduced stress response, and even improved immune function, as measured by Natural Killer cell function, with quantifiable improvements lasting 30 days or more after time spent in nature (3,4,5). These are all very real physical improvements that everyone with ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, or Lyme disease certainly needs.

Aside from scientific research, I know from my own experience that spending time outdoors feels rejuvenating, peaceful, and centering. Before ME/CFS, I loved outdoor activities, including long hikes, canoeing, camping, and even backpacking. Much of that is beyond my limits now, but my husband and I still enjoy camping - at our own slow pace - and various treatments for ME/CFS have allowed me to manage short hikes and kayaking. Spending time outdoors is still among my favorite things to do.

Even when I can’t be active, though, I have a goal to spend at least ten minutes each day outside. I lie in my reclining chair on our back deck, look up at the sky, listen to the birds, and instantly feel more relaxed. Even that small amount of time in nature, that close to my house, makes me feel better.

Here are some ideas so that you too can experience the restorative effects of nature, even if you are mostly homebound.

Just a Few Minutes Outdoors Helps
Some research studies show positive physical and mental changes in people after just 5 minutes (2) outdoors, so it doesn’t take much to make a difference! Try lying in a reclining chair or hammock in your yard/garden, patio, or deck. Just that simple change of scenery from your normal bed or couch to being outdoors can make you feel better and help you to tune into nature.

Leave the Devices Inside
Although I admit I do sometimes bring my laptop outside to write, you'll get the most benefit from leaving the phone, tablet, laptop, etc. inside. I usually don't even play music when I am out on our deck because it drowns out the sounds of nature. Bring a book out with you or just grab your pillow and blanket and relax!

Immerse Yourself in Nature
With the electronic devices left inside, you can now concentrate fully on nature. You may be surprised at how much you can experience of the natural world just from lying outside your home for a few minutes. Listen for the sound of birds and the wind blowing through the leaves of the trees. Look up at the sky - watching the clouds move across the sky, observing the different cloud types and shapes each day, or noting the unique color of the sky can bring an instant sense of peace. Notice how the sky after a summer storm looks entirely different from the sky on a clear fall day.

You can also look around you at the flowers and trees, enjoying the different colors and shapes and watching as they change with the seasons. Smell the air. Breathe deeply and notice the smell of dry fall leaves or how the air smells after a spring rain. Focus yourself entirely on the natural world around you, blocking out the incessant noise of our modern life - even just a few minutes of this can reduce stress, improve your sense of well-being, and bring positive physical changes.

If you can't manage even a few minutes lying outside, then open the window near your bed or couch (or look through the glass) and try the same exercises to focus each of your senses on the outdoor world. Studies have shown that even looking at pictures of nature has positive effects (5,6).

Managing a Longer Outdoor Experience
More extensive time spent outdoors brings even more and longer-lasting  improvements (7,8). For some who are severely ill and housebound, exploring beyond your backyard might be more than you can manage. However, many with these chronic illnesses can handle a longer or more immersive experience outdoors, especially after treating aspects of the disease and incorporating effective illness management to allow you to be more active without crashing.

If you can manage a short walk, try a local park or nature center for a change of scenery from the same old walk along your street or neighborhood. If a walk is beyond your limits, ask a friend or family member to push your wheelchair along a paved path or take you on a drive through the country. Roll down the window, breathe deeply of the fresh air, and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. After treating orthostatic intolerance and wearing a heart rate monitor, I discovered I can handle a little bit of kayaking  - since it is done sitting down, my heart rate doesn’t jump up as high as when I am walking.

For camping, you can rent, borrow, or buy a camper as your home-away-from-home. Many state parks and other campgrounds offer rental cabins or trailers, and all public parks have handicapped campsites (and many have at least one wheelchair-accessible trail, too). You also provide your own food when camping, which helps when you have a restricted diet. You don't have to go far - look for local state or county parks with campgrounds. Spending time camping in our pop-up camper and being outdoors so much makes me feel instantly relaxed and content.

When you are camping, stick to your normal routines as much as possible - for me that means an early bedtime and an afternoon nap. We also bring portable lounge chairs so I can recline around the campfire or with my book. The nice thing is that being away from home (even if it's just a local park) means I am away from all the usual household responsibilities, so I can focus all of my energy on having fun and enjoying my surroundings. I love my small daily doses of nature on my back deck, but spending a few days outdoors, immersed in nature, is truly rejuvenating.

Each of us is different, even if we suffer from the same disease, and we all have different needs, but we can each find ways to incorporate nature and the outdoors into our lives. The payoff for a little time spent outside is huge, both in terms of emotional well-being and physical health. So, go ahead…put away the device you are reading this on and indulge in some time outdoors - your mind and body will thank you!

How do YOU enjoy the outdoors?

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