Sunday, June 14, 2020

Weekly Inspiration: Get Outside!

Sorry the blog has been so quiet. My crash that started in March has begun to ease up a bit, but my energy and stamina are still lower than normal. I am behind in everything, including blogging, and trying to catch up. I started antivirals again last week for reactivated HHV-6, so I may have been further feeling the effects of those (you typically experience a period of worsening, called a Herx reaction, before feeling better).

So, there haven't been too many new posts here lately, except for lots of TV reviews (check them out - some great shows on now!) and an occasional Weekly Inspiration (see older ones at the link). I do hope to write a post this week with a more detailed update of my recent downturn, what testing showed, and treatments.

In the meantime, we are enjoying lovely weather here, and that's inspired me to talk about nature and getting outdoors today! We had a cold, wet May and then our temperatures soared up to the 90's (F) in June, but this weekend, we returned to perfect weather--highs in the 70's, lows in the 50's--which for me means we can turn off the air conditioning, and I can enjoy more time outdoors (I'm very heat intolerant these days). Just sitting near the open window in my recliner lifts my spirits!

Below is an excerpt from my new book, Finding a New Normal: Living Your Best Life with Chronic Illness, all about the restorative powers of nature. You can read more about my book or purchase it in print or on a number of different e-book platforms at this link. With feeling so poorly these past months, I often remind myself of what I learned in writing this chapter and how important it is to my physical and mental well-being to spend time outside every day.

This is an exact excerpt from the book, though I have added in some photos. Enjoy and then get outside!

The Restorative Power of Nature

Scientific studies have found that time spent in nature—even for as little as five minutes—reduces stress, improves creativity, reduces self-criticism, and increases kindness.[i] Spending time outdoors also has measurable physical effects, including reduced inflammation, improved mental clarity and memory, and reduced stress response. It even improves immune function, as measured by the improved function of the body’s natural killer cells, with quantifiable improvements lasting 30 days or more after time spent in nature.[ii] These are all very real physical improvements that everyone living with a chronic illness certainly needs.
Aside from scientific research, I know from my own experience that spending time outdoors feels rejuvenating, peaceful, and centering. Before I had ME/CFS, I loved outdoor activities, including long hikes, canoeing, camping, and backpacking. Much of that is beyond my limits now. However, 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, I still have a goal to spend at least 10 minutes each day outside. I lie in my reclining chair on our back deck, looking up at the sky and listening to the birds, and I instantly feel more relaxed. That small amount of time in nature in our own backyard makes me feel better.
Here are some ideas for how 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 only five minutes outdoors,[iii] 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 reclining on your normal bed or couch to reclining al fresco—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, and other devices inside. I usually don’t even play music when I am out on our deck because it drowns out the sounds of nature. Instead, bring a book or a crossword puzzle out with you, or just grab your pillow and maybe a blanket—and relax.

Immerse Yourself in Nature
With the electronic devices left inside, you can concentrate more fully on nature. You may be surprised at how much of the natural world you can experience from simply lying outside your home for a few minutes and at how restorative it can feel. Gaze up at the sky, noting its unique colors and the variations in light and shadow. Watch the clouds move across the sky, and observe their different types and shapes. Notice how the sky after a summer storm looks entirely different from the sky on a clear fall day. Look at the flowers and trees, appreciating their different colors and shapes and how they change with the seasons.
Listen for the sounds of birds singing and the breeze moving through the leaves of the trees. Smell the air. Breathe deeply and notice the aroma of dry fall leaves, damp earth after a spring rain, or the fragrance of summer blooms.
Focus yourself entirely on the natural world around you, blocking out the incessant noise of our modern life. Even just a few minutes of fully immersing yourself in nature can reduce stress, improve your sense of well-being, and bring positive physical changes.
If you can’t manage a few minutes lying outside, then open a window near your bed or couch (or just look through the glass) and try the same exercises to focus each of your senses on the outdoor world. Studies have shown that simply looking at pictures of nature has positive effects.[iv]

Managing a Longer Outdoor Experience
More extensive time spent outdoors beyond your own yard can bring even more and longer-lasting improvements.[v] That might be too much to manage for some people who are severely ill and housebound. However, many people with 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 relapsing.
If you can manage it, take a stroll along your street or neighborhood and notice the trees, flowers, and sky. Even in a familiar place, you can appreciate the changes in weather and seasons. For a change of scenery, try going to a local park or nature center and taking a short walk.
If a walk is beyond your limits, ask a friend or family member to push your wheelchair along a paved path or to take you on a drive through the country. Roll down the window, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.
After treating orthostatic intolerance (OI) 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, and I can rest and just float whenever I need a break. Many parks with lakes or ponds rent canoes or kayaks. If you can’t manage paddling on your own, ask a friend or family member to bring you along in a tandem (two-person) canoe or kayak. Being out on the water is incredibly peaceful and calming.

If you’re up for a more extended outdoor adventure, you might want to try camping. Camping in our pop-up camper and spending more time outdoors than I can at home makes me feel relaxed and content. You don’t have to go far, either; look for local, state, or county parks with campgrounds. Many state parks and private campgrounds offer rental cabins or trailers, or you can rent, borrow, or buy a camper as your home-away-from-home. All public parks have handicapped campsites, and many have at least one wheelchair-accessible trail. You also provide your own food when camping, which helps when you have a restricted diet.

When 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.
One of the best things about being away from home (even if it’s just a local park) is that I am away from all the usual household responsibilities. I can focus all my energy on relaxing, having fun, and enjoying my surroundings. I love my small daily doses of nature on my back deck, but spending a few hours or a few days immersed in nature elsewhere is truly rejuvenating.

Every chronically ill person is different and has unique needs, even if we have the same disease, but we can each find our own ways to incorporate nature into our lives. The payoff for a little time spent outside is huge, in terms of both 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.

[i] Tyrväinen L, Ojala A, et al, “The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment,” Journal of Environmental Psychology: 38, pp. 19 (June 2014). Barton J, Pretty J, “What Is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health?Environmental Science and Technology: 44(10), pp. 3947–55 (2010).
[ii] Miyazaki Y, Lee J, Park BJ, et al, “Preventive medical effects of nature therapy,” Nihon Eiseigaku Zasshi 66(4), pp. 651–6 (September 2011). Mao GX, Lan XG, et al, “Effects of short-term forest bathing on human health in a broad-leaved evergreen forest in Zheziang Province, China,” Biomedical and Environmental Sciences 25(3), pp. 317–24 (June 21012). Ryan RM, Weinstein N, et al, “Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 30, pp. 15968 (November 3, 2009).
[iii] Barton J, Pretty J, “What Is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health?Environmental Science and Technology: 44(10), pp. 3947–55 (2010).
[iv] Ryan RM, Weinstein N, et al, “Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 30, pp. 159–68 (November 3, 2009). Berman MG, Jonides J, Kaplan S, “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” Psychological Science 19(12), pp. 1207–12 (December 1, 2008).
[v] Qing L, “Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function,Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine 15(1), pp. 9–17 (January 2010). Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P, “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Wild Settings,PLoS ONE7(12) e51474 (December 12, 2012).

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