All posts by fleetpen

I am a freelance writer focusing on health journalism, medical writing and editing, and writing for internal and external communications for institutions of higher education.

If “Green Space” Were a Pill …

Cypress Knees Chippokes SP

When my father came to visit, we spent only a small portion of time at home, mostly to cook or play Monopoly. Otherwise, he and I and my boys were out in the natural world, visiting state parks and throwing treats to the sea birds that follow the ferries near us. The good news is that we do not always have to travel to a state park to get to our “green space” – in fact a short 5 minute walk takes us to a very nice trail that curves through forests and around ponds and grassy meadows.

It turns out, especially for children, that having to walk more than 20 minutes to a green space is correlated with poor health and wellbeing. I found this out when I was reading a fascinating article that reviewed research examining children’s wellbeing and green space. The review, published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing (http://www.pediatricnursing.org/article/S0882-5963(17)30185-9/fulltext), ultimately included information from over 75,000 children in multiple studies.

The overall benefits of spending time in green space, for children, were such a long promising list, I started thinking about pharmaceuticals. Imagine, if you will, a parent who is told, “This pill, taken at least once daily, could improve your child’s memory, focus, attention, friendships, and self-esteem while reducing stress, attention deficit, hyperactivity, and problem behaviors. Oh, and you can actually take this pill as often as needed, with few side effects. If you have to take a break from this pill, there will be no harmful withdrawal symptoms!”

Well, that’s green space for you. Take your daily green space prescription daily, and it’s good for you and your children. The problem for a lot of parents and caregivers is simply a matter of access. How do you get to safe green space? If it’s greater than 20 minutes by foot, people won’t go. Time is another issue. In working families, evenings are packed with dinner, homework, and sometimes other activities – leaving very little time for that all important green time. And, let’s face it, children are not always cooperative and interested in going for a walk in the woods or by a lake! But — they are not much more cooperative with taking pills for any of the problems outside play time in a green area can address. So, parents, would you rather have your child fuss at you for trying to get them out into nature, or fuss at you and refuse to take their meds? By the way, as always, I am not saying that medication isn’t sometimes necessary. Children who have to take medication for behavioral health issues also can benefit from green space! And there’s no nasty medication interaction to worry about ….

The author of this review article makes a crucial plea for thinking about including more green space in developed areas, such as neighborhoods, schools, and even hospital gardens. Ya’ll, we humans respond so well to nature that simply looking out a window at a natural setting, or looking at a photograph of nature on the wall, can reduce our stress. Let’s not be stingy with what the planet gives us.

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Greener ‘Hoods = Better Moods

 

Foggy morning slim moon

Almost every morning, my dog and I get up around sunrise and go for a run along a nearby trail. To me, this is an almost magical time, full of cacophonous bird and frog song, and the moon and planets sloping towards the other side of the planet. My dog agrees, reporting back to me that the world is full of the rich scents of deer and other animals who have been active all night. Our run together is only a brief taste of what he really wants – to be bounding through the forests and streams near our home.

And yet, there are times when I drive by new developments where hardly a tree is visible, or through cities where only a small, scraggly tree dots the pavement here and there, bravely hanging on in hopes of succession, I suppose. These are, in my view, hostile habitats for both me and my dog. And probably trees as well.

Turns out, adults fair better when their developed communities are intermingled with forested spaces. They feel better, and their mood appears to be improved in these types of spaces, according to research published in a 2018 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29443932). The discussion of the results is fascinating, and highlights the complexity of understanding green space and mood and our lived human lives. We respond well to the presence of green growing plants and trees, but we do not want to be overwhelmed by them. We do best when we have the option to go into a forested area, and come back out. And, the authors suggest, there is likely a strong interplay between the presence of green spaces in communities, our social connectedness in those green spaces (picnics and frisbee anyone?), and the fact that living in a community where green spaces are preserved and enjoyed is a tangible reflection of shared values. In other words, we love green spaces not just for themselves and the beings they host, but for the meaning and connection they provide for us.

Think of the implications for the way we plan and develop communities of all sizes, from local schools and faith institutions, to new communities or shared work spaces.

Green Space Beats the Blues

In case you didn’t see it, there was an article in the New York Times this past weekend highlighting the difficult side effects (withdrawal symptoms) that people face when trying to wean off antidepressants after a long period of use. The authors point out that antidepressants have mostly been tested and confirmed as effective for short term use — which means that everyone who has been on them for years and longer has been something of a guinea pig.

I was chatting about this with a friend in the behavioral health profession, and she pointed out that we hear all about these difficulties but very little about the benefits of being outside for beating back depression. Specifically, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the more variety of greenery around us, the better our mood. (On a side note, it turns out that the more plants we consumer, the happier we are, also!)

So, I went to look at the literature and found a fascinating study in which researchers compared 4338 individuals who happened to be twins – so approximately 2169 pairs of same sex twins. They looked at the individuals’ reports of access to green space as well as their self reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. The results showed that the more greenery the individuals were around, the better their mood. Now, this is not a head-to-head comparison of green space to antidepressants, but it is something to bear in mind. Unfortunately, if you are like me, the withdrawal symptoms you experience from being away from green spaces might in fact be just as bad — but long term exposure to green space is generally good for you. The more plants and birds and wildlife the better! The study results appeared in the June 2015 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25631858).

Stressed? Tune in to Birdsong

morning fog

PHOTO: A picture might say a thousand words, but sadly can not capture the orchestral birdsong of an early morning in February.  There was also a very merry frog accompaniment that morning. 

 

Have you tried everything you can think of to relax and de-stress, with no luck? What about turning off your playlist or your podcast, and simply listening to the birds? Your body will naturally relax as you do. And, there’s science behind this experience.

When we listen to the birds, our bodies actually experience a physical calming that can be measured, according to research results published in the March 2017 issue of Scientific Reports (https://www.nature.com/articles/srep45273#discussion).  So when researchers compared the way study participants’ brains responded to natural sounds  with the way they responded to artificial sounds, they found people listening to bird song calmed down in ways that the researchers could measure on their imaging equipment.

Now, of course, we are talking about the usual calm happy twitter (the original – and far less stressful – twitter!) of birdsong, not the aggressive cawing of a fractious murder of crows, or the high pitched call of a hawk about to descend on its prey. Not all natural sounds are created equal!

The cacophony of the birds’ morning chorus is one of my favorite things about where we live now in Virginia. They wake me up in the most wonderful way. And, because we live so close to forested areas, I can sit outside on our deck or take the dog for a trail walk or jog, and listen to the birds. I can attest to how calming this is. I don’t know whether it is purely the birdsong, or the act of paying attention in nature, which is also said to be calming. Focusing my mind on the birdsong, or on the patterns of bark and moss, or reflections in the water, is all good for the body and soul.

In my view, one of the best aspects of this stress management technique is that, for most of us, it’s free (or almost free), and has no side effects. Even if you live in an urban high rise apartment with very little access to places where birds gather, you can still find recorded birdsong fairly easily and affordably. On the other hand, an hour with a therapist to learn how to manage stress or anxiety could cost you close to $100, not including copays on medications for anxiety or depression.

If you want to dig deeper, you can turn to Cornell Ornithology (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Page.aspx%3Fpid%3D1059) for tools to help you learn to identify birdsongs. Good luck with some of them! Mockingbirds are notorious mimickers, as are crows. And did you know that the Brown Thrasher can remember up to 1,000 separate songs? As a baby birder myself, I can tell you, there’s really nothing like hearing a bird singing and knowing “who” is up there in that tree.

By the way, my boys both really enjoy using our birding app, Merlin, to identify birds and then listen to all their various recorded calls and songs. Children love birds! This is a stress reducing project people of every age in your family can enjoy together.

Houseplants, Air Quality, and You

IrisesIt’s houseplant appreciation day! I did not know this, until fellow blogger This Veggie Life mentioned it (https://thisveggielife.blog/2018/01/10/houseplant-appreciation-day/). Evidently I am not the only one who loves to have plants around!

So take a moment to water your plants. Repot them if they are getting a little root bound – or buy yourself a new plant for your desk or your home. Here’s my confession – I am more of a light green thumb than a true green thumb. But, I’m working on it. My goal this year is to keep more plants alive than I let go through neglect or any of the many errors we all make with watering, light, and so on. Actually, I’d love to be able to pull of a jungalow style! (look it up on Pinterest – it’s a thing!)

I don’t know about you, but when I walk into a space full of lush green plants, I just feel like a breathe easier. Science says that we actually do breathe more easily when we have plants indoors.

A team of researchers in Portugal wanted to find out if this effect works for schools as well. After nine weeks of looking at the air quality of school rooms with six hanging potted plants compared to rooms without plants, as well as outdoor air. The rooms that contained plants had a higher indoor air quality – lower levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), lower levels of carbon dioxide, and even lower levels of particulate matter in the air! The research appeared in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health in 2012 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23095155).

NASA has established that there are certain plants that do the best job of improving indoor air quality. Researchers there started looking at the question because if humans are going to live in space, we are probably going to be living in enclosed areas. The NASA teams wanted to know which plants would be most useful in that kind of environment. The answer is a list of plants that you can find easily, including golden pothos, English ivy, Peace lily, potted mums, and gerbera daisies. You can find the study results here:  https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19930073077.pdf On the whole, the plants improved the air in numerous ways, including removing benzene and formaldehyde from the air.

People are happier and more creative when they have plants in their workspace. I imagine this is true for children, too, although no study has been done to find out. One of the big challenges of course – as any indoor gardener knows – is keeping the plants alive and healthy looking. So, that is a little extra “work” but the pay off in terms of improved air quality and improved mood could be worth it!

Alright, so, I have a personal commitment to buy at least one new houseplant every other month. (On the in between months, I am focusing on lighting!) And I have to say that one of the sites that I am finding most inspiring this year about plants is http://www.succulentsandsunshine.com

Plants waiting potting

ADHD is a walk in the park! Literally

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“My child just can’t pay attention! We are trying everything! I’m at my wits end!”

I hear this often from my friends who have children with what the adults around them call attention issues. Although the trend towards instantly medication children with ADHD seems to be losing strength, I still know many parents who have been told – or believe – that their child has attention problems. And then they are placed on the roller coaster of trying the numerous strategies for coping with attention that are out there (many of which are effective, don’t get me wrong).

But I want to highlight the importance of getting all children out into nature. Every child benefits, but children with ADHD (diagnosed or not) seem to benefit more than most.

My personal view of this is that children need to run and play, and every single day should begin with recess, PE, or a walk in a natural setting, so that children can focus better. The research supports this, by the way – a 20-minute walk in a natural setting improves children’s attention and memory. And you can chalk that up to the natural setting – researchers found that a walk in an urban setting did not lead to as much improvement, according to research published in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Attention Disorders. Yes, that’s old research, but as long as children are not starting their day off with a 20 minute walk in nature, I think it’s worth talking about why. This doesn’t have to be “wasted” time, either. A nature walk is an excellent opportunity for hands on learning and social skills building. It’s important to remember that children feel a natural awe over things that we adults might not even pay attention to anymore. A huge sunflower, the patterns of bark, the tiniest inch worm – children have a depth of appreciation for the minutiae that benefits all of us.

Alright, so let’s say that taking a walk in a park isn’t feasible for the 4.4 million children who are thought to have attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders. There’s another way – green play areas. I am not talking about hard metal bars painted green! Kids who have the opportunity to play in a space that has a variety of greenery – shrubs, flowers, trees, grass – have milder attention deficit symptoms than their ADHD peers who are in less green play spaces. Perhaps not surprisingly, children with hyperactivity do best in wide open green spaces, according to researchers publishing in the November 2011 issue of Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Again, old news, maybe – but take a journey around the schools in your area and you will probably not see the kinds of green play areas that would most benefit children.

At the very least, parents, let’s start making an effort to go walk in a park as often as possible with our kids. All this data applies to elementary school age children, by the way. We’ll explore the relationship between middle school and high school youth and green space at a later date.

Here’s what you can do –

  • If you have children, try to get them outside into parks as often as possible. Outside in general is good, of course, but the more diverse the greenery, animals, and birds, the better for them (and you!)
  • Advocate with your local schools, school board, or community for greener spaces – outdoor classrooms, school gardens, and so on. Of course, if you are committed enough to this to become a Master Gardener or a Master Naturalist, that’s even better! Volunteering is good for you too. But, it’s true that those green spaces require maintenance and even teachers sometimes need another trained adult to help them get the most out of green areas.
  • Create diverse green spaces in your neighborhoods and even indoors in your buildings. Make them inviting and friendly to children, as well as to parents.

Take a Hike! How “Green” Time Helps

It’s been snowy around here, what with the Bomb Cyclone and an arctic chill descending on us for days. But the dog and I have still managed to take long daily walks in the woods, which are even more beautiful with the white snow sharp against dark boughs and shadowy hollows.
Walking and listening in the woods reminded me that spending time in nature simply makes us all a little saner. Here’s why:
• Nature is restorative. “Restorative” is a vague concept, but really what it means is that you will be returned to a more whole state by spending time in nature. And who doesn’t feel somewhat scattered and lost these days, with screens and headlines constantly blaring? People who spend time in spaces that have a lot of different types of plants, birds, and wildlife say they are more relaxed than those who either don’t get out into nature much, or who go to parks or places where the space is highly manicured and limited to only a few different plants and very little wildlife. (Have you ever been to one of those beautifully landscaped tourist destinations and noticed that, yes, it’s picture perfect, but there’s not a bird or a butterfly to be seen? That’s a sign that I shouldn’t be there either. Snap a pic, and find someplace more friendly to living creatures!)
• Nature improves attention. Research consistently shows that both adults and children pay attention better and have improved memory skills if they get outside daily, preferably in green spaces with a lot of different plants and living beings. Think too much about that, and you’ll start to wonder why we force our littlest humans to play on metal playgrounds over concrete slabs.
• Nature improves your mental health. You’ll be less stressed and frustrated, and generally happier, if you spend time with nature, indoors or out. You’ll be less anxious and less depressed if you can find or create green space in your life. Ideally, those are outdoor spaces but I am also a huge advocate for bringing plants indoors if you can. Don’t go full jungalow (an interior decorating style thick with plants) just yet! More on that in future days.
It turns out that what we most resonate with in nature are elements that fascinate us — in other words, a wide range of plants and living things to watch. An Australian team just published some interesting research on this topic in an effort to understand what kinds of spaces people like best. This is important not just for you as you decide where you are going to spend your green time, but for developers and planners who are trying to figure out what to do with public spaces. The researchers surveyed 447 people to find out about their favorite natural spaces, and what they loved about them. Nature parks and botanical gardens ranked high on the list of favorite places, with people often commenting that specific birds, animals, and plants were their most loved elements of those spaces. The research appeared in a 2017 issue of Frontiers of Psychology (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5717422/)
So, a little real talk, if this has inspired you to get out there. As a parent, I am always dragging my two young ones around with me. I think it’s essential for all of us that they spend as much time burning off energy outdoors as possible. But here are hree truths about taking children out there with you:
1. You’re going to need more water and snacks than you can imagine. Just bring them. There’s really nothing to be gained by telling your children they have to wait till later, except unnecessary whining. I believe in water as the only drink option, however. It’s better for them.
2. It’s not going to be idyllic. I am sure there are families out there who venture into nature and have a postcard quality time, complete with picnics and successful fishing trips. That’s not my family, and I’m going to bet it’s not most people’s families. The reality is that kids will whine, fuss, and suddenly become too tired to walk another step. They’ll get over it. Push through. It’s worth it.
3. You might have to make the fun up yourself. I’m a big fan of letting children explore nature using their own imagination, but there comes a point on every hike when they need a little encouragement in the form of fun. My husband played a fun game with the kids on a recent hike in below-freezing temperatures. They loved it, and I recommend it – The place we were walking had a lot of boardwalks. Every time we came to a bridge my husband and the boys named it – This is “the bridge of laughter” or This is “the bridge of not knowing anything” – and then had to act it out while on the bridge.

Two Challenges for You Today

1. Research five green spaces near you that you haven’t been to yet, and pick one to visit next.

2. Take time to notice details in a natural setting. Really, it doesn’t matter if you only have a potted plant, the birdfeeder outside your work or school window, or a spirited weed coming up through a crack in the sidewalk, it’s noticing the details of nature that seem to improve mood and well being, according to the Australian team. Take at least five minutes to sit and look at your patch of greenery to fully appreciate it. Sketch or write about your observations if you feel like it.