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The Positive Health Benefits of Being Outdoors

written by Aruna Nathan, M.D.
on Sunday, 27th November ,2016

Although this post is about exercising and associated health impacts, let me begin by stating that being outdoors is good for your mental wellbeing. Even spending a short time outdoors goes a long way to improve focus, creativity and self-esteem! Perhaps, this is what prompted the great Naturalist John Muir to state “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”.  

A simple act of walking or a leisurely stroll for an hour burns close to 200 calories, depending on body weight and vigorous hiking can burn up to 600 calories. Furthermore, hiking near water especially helps with mental health (1). When you are outdoors, you generally feel good, and this feeling continues to stay with you for the next few hours, maybe even the rest of the day (2). When we feel better about ourselves, we tend to make better decisions with our lifestyles, interpersonal relationships and also our food intake.

Gardening is another powerful activity. In my medical practice, I often notice people who garden on a regular basis tend to age with good health. Even if they are hypertensive, are on medications and in some instances have severe arthritis, they tend to be happier and well-adjusted with their activities. It is a great habit to cultivate, and one I am personally hoping to incorporate in my life.

Let us now embark on the simple question, “why should one exercise?”
There are plenty of reasons why one should exercise, I have listed four reasons below.
• Individuals who exercise regularly report overall better health.
• Individuals who exercise regularly have fewer mobility constrains.
• Individuals who exercise regularly stay younger!
• Individuals who exercise regularly have lower health care costs.

The importance of regular exercise becomes more relevant after the age of 30. This is usually the time when one tends to stop playing sports or indulge in physical activities like regular biking and running. This is often due to family and work needs that force time to be devoted to other tasks. We need to prioritize exercise at the same level as all other commitments and make sure we do not abandon this in lieu of others. Regular exercise helps maintains a good balance and lends itself to being more productive in our day.

Another important fact is, we begin to lose aerobic capacity and muscle mass as we age. Things we could do easily, for instance, running up three or more flight of stairs can get more difficult, lifting heavier objects may seem challenging. This decline hastens as we get older. For this reason, exercise is an imperative especially for older people including strength training.

It is never too late to start an exercise program. Anyone and everyone, with or without existing medical conditions can begin to exercise. There is a study where it was shown that even individuals who were previously sedentary and initiated exercise as late as age 85, demonstrated significant improvement as compared to the group that remained sedentary. Nursing Home residents time and time again show improved fitness with structured exercise programs.

As the life span of humans is increasing with advances in medical technology, medications and standard of living, we have to learn to be smart to live healthier as well. We need to keep our body and minds in good shape as we age and get into and past our golden years. I will soon write about the types of exercise for the body and also will comment on the importance of training our minds and the mind-body relationship.

If you have not exercised in a while and especially if you have medical conditions that may affect you, please consult with your physician before you begin a program.

Editor's note:  The photos below are from our group walk/run on the canal this morning.  What a great way to recover from a weekend of eating!  Even though I am not a fan of cold weather, if you're appropriately dressed in layers, a walk in the cold, especially with friends, can be invigorating.  My colleagues want to encourage video game fans to enjoy the fresh air and the scenery.  But if you're absorbed in Pokemon, don't walk too close to the canal!

For inspiration and motivation, following are a few links:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/wellbeing/11807078/The-elderly-athletes-redefining-old-age.html
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/06/100-year-old-japanese-woman-sets-her-own-1500-metre-freestyle-swim-record
http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/105-year-old-japanese-runner-golden-bolt-dashes-100m-record-challenges-usain-bolt-1520892

References:
1. http://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/
2. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/?_r=0
3. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Walking-Your-steps-to-health

4. To estimate how many calories you burn with different activities:  http://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/calories-burned-in-30-minutes-of-leisure-and-routine-activities

Tags: outdoors, depression

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