The Neuroscience of Nature
An exciting field of research, called the neuroscience of nature, validates why movement is the best medicine for our bodies. Remember mom’s medicine for boredom and bad behavior? “Go outside and play!” Dr. Mom was right. Enjoying the health effects of a walk in the woods or playing in the park is especially therapeutic in the modern age of children sitting too much and focused on the artificial light of computer screens.
Once upon a time children ran around outside for exercise and entertainment. Nowadays, they sit indoors in front of a screen for entertainment, and they are getting sicker, sadder, and fatter. Modern day kids have a green-grass deficiency. What medicine do they need? The great outdoors! The sights and sounds of nature both relax the mind and invigorate the body. The colors, the movement, and the fresh air, are just what the doctor ordered.
How Nature Heals
On your way to your nature walk suppose you went by your neighborhood neurologist and got wired with cameras (called functional MRIs) that peer inside your brain to reveal what’s going on in there as you are walking out there. Here’s a list of some of the fascinating health effects neuroscientists have discovered from a simple walk in the woods:
- Decreased heart rate
- More relaxed blood pressure
- Increased happy hormones
- Decreased stress hormones
- Mellower moods
- Stronger immune system
- Fewer fearful thoughts
Neuroscientists dub the beauties of nature “visual valium.” The insightful statement “It’s pleasing to the eyes” also applies to the brain since the eye is simply an extension of the brain. A reminder I often say during my nature walk is: “Eye feel good.”
Imagine inside your body and brain you have command centers full of dials, which are turned up and down and set just right for your physical and mental well-being. These dials are interconnected by chemical emails – hormones – that enable each system to talk to the other. When you walk outside the eye-brain dial says to the heart dial: “Relax, you don’t need to beat so hard and fast.” Then it says to the intestinal dials, “Gut feel good!” Movement helps every organ of the body work more efficiently.
Why Movement is the Best Medicine
Brisk movement causes blood to flow faster over the surface of the endothelium. The endothelium is your body’s largest endocrine organ. If you open all your blood vessels and spread them out flat, your endothelium would cover the surface area of several tennis courts. Each cell of the endothelium is its own endocrine organ, filled with “microscopic medicine bottles” that release health-promoting substances into the bloodstream at just the right time, in the right amount, with no harmful side effects – and they’re free. The fast-moving blood creates an energy field called shear force, which releases a natural biochemical called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide (NO) acts as a biochemical key to open your pharmacy and dispense the medicines you need. The more you exercise, the more your endothelium gets used to the extra blood flow.
A Tale of Two Kids
Gracie grows up green. Since her bed faces the window she wakes up to the sights and sounds of nature. Her bedroom is flowered with plants and kid-playing scenes on the wallpaper. And smart Dr. Mom enforces the “go outside and play” prescription when Gracie needs a little perk up. Tom the Techie, on the other hand, is glued to a screen most of the day and doesn’t enjoy mom’s medicine of “go outside and play. Unlike Gracie, Tom is more likely to eventually fall victim to the ailments of a new illness coming into the doctor’s dictionary, the sitting disease. Movement in the great outdoors, or what Japanese neuroscientists term “forest bathing,” is one of the best medicines for growing brains and bodies.
In my medical office, I practice what I call the pills-skills model of healthcare. Parents are asking for less prescription pills and more self-help skills for their children. This mindset prompts your doctor to shift from a medical mindset into more of a self-help mindset, from what the doctor prescribes to what the doctor advises. One of my top “medicines” that I prescribe: move more!
Science agrees. In a revealing study, boys labeled A.D.D were divided into two groups: one got an extra 20 minutes a day of “prescribed” vigorous exercise; the other group didn’t. Compared with the “sitters,” the “movers” showed remarkable improvement in their A.D.D., especially in their ability to sit still and focus. And another “D” lessened, their need for mood-mellowing drugs.
Here’s my wish for a healthy school program. Let’s call it: “No child left (on their) behind!”