Those of us lucky enough to live in the Blue Water area sometime forget how privileged we are to bask in the sparkling backdrop of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River’s peace, calm, beauty, and harmony.
With all the amenities of city life a short drive away, we are also free to enjoy the splendor and mystery of nature. This is never truer than during the summer, when the sights, sounds and landscapes of St. Clair County provide us the opportunity to improve our health by participating in countless outdoor activities, while simultaneously experiencing the joy and exhilaration that comes only from the feel of the sun and a gentle breeze off the lake against our cheeks.
Whether we’re picnicking at one of our many public parks, cruising the St. Clair River, taking a swim at Lakeside Park, wandering along the Blue Water River Walk, or bicycling the Bridge to Bay Trail, there is never a shortage of exciting outdoor activities for us to enjoy.
Unfortunately, many of us fail to take advantage of all the summer fun our area has to offer. Nationally, Americans who live until the average age of 78 will spend 68 of those years indoors, another 5 years in their car, and only 5 years outdoors! By spending so little time outdoors, we are robbing ourselves of the many physical and mental benefits of nature.
Fresh air helps our lungs to dilate more fully and improves their ability to cleanse the body of indoor pollutants like mold, mildew, bacteria, dust mites, and animal dander. Spending time outdoors also lowers heart rates and blood pressure rates, while providing Vitamin D, which is critical for bone growth, cell growth and neuromuscular and immune function. Because very few foods contain Vitamin D, to stay healthy most of us need to get 80 to 90% of our Vitamin D from sunshine.
There are behavioral health benefits to spending time outdoors as well. It appears that being outdoors in literally in our DNA. For example, our bodies produce lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol when we walk outdoors for a half hour instead of on an indoor treadmill. Even our brains are affected. Neurologists report that spending time outdoors helps the brain rest, improving conceptual thinking and sustained attention, important components to learning. This is born out among healthy 5-year olds, where those who spend the most time outdoors also have the highest attention scores and working memories. As for adults, people who spend more time outdoors compared to others experience increased brain function, reduced symptoms of ADHD, increased creativity, improved short term memory, and less mental fatigue. Indeed, the impact of spending just 20 minutes outside to mental alertness is about the same as we get from a cup of coffee.
While any time outdoors is beneficial compared to time spent indoors, the healthiest time outside is spent in exercise. Unfortunately, there too most Americans fail. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 20 percent of Americans meet the recommendations of exercising moderately for two-and-a-half hours per week and vigorous exercise for an hour and 15 minutes per week. Instead, most of us do only 17 minutes of fitness activity a day. This lack of exercise helps contribute to approximately 2.7 million deaths each year in the United States. Lack of physical activities has also contributed to obesity rates doubling in adults, tripling in children, and quadrupling in adolescents over the last 30 years.
The Blue Water area offers great outdoor aerobic activities like walking, jogging, cycling, hiking, swimming, and kayaking, all of which strengthen heart and lungs, lowers cholesterol, reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, improves immune function, lowers blood pressure, and helps to shed extra pounds. To enjoy all these benefits, commit to spending at least a half hour to forty-five minutes outside every day. Even better, try to spend some time outside exercising every day. With all the physical and mental benefits of nature, getting outside in a natural setting should be a priority for both children and adults.
By Debra B. Johnson is the executive director of St. Clair County Community Mental Health.