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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.

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Want Health and Self-Esteem? Garden

Good news for gardeners – you’re probably less depressed, have healthier self esteem, and better overall health than non-gardening pals. And even better news – the garden doesn’t have to be on your  personal property! British researchers looked at the health and mood of 136 allotment gardeners and compared that information to that of about 133 same-age peers who were not gardening. An allotment garden is similar to a community garden space here in the United States, where gardeners come together in a shared space to work on their assigned patch of land. Those who gardened not only felt better about themselves, they said they had less fatigue and more overall energy. The research appeared in the Sept 2016 Journal of Public Health (Oxford). (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26515229)

Why does gardening have these effects? The researchers – at least in the abstract – don’t try to explain what they have observed. As a gardener myself (albeit, not a very good one!) I can say that the pure magic of gardening is heartening. The experience of planting a seed and seeing it grow is magical – even when you understand the science behind the process. There is still something that is just fundamentally rewarding about the entire process and you’re living in a pile of charts and calendars intended to guide your seeding and harvesting decisions.

It’s delicious to have a food garden, of course, because you can go one step further and make a meal for yourself and others – and frankly, beans and tomatoes and even humble eggplants are just better when they come out of your own garden. Self esteem can come from both growing and preparing these foods. But flower gardens and gardens that are enjoyed by children, birds, butterflies, and all other beings bring pleasure as well. Sharing the process of preparing, planting, and caring for a garden with my children is also nothing short of magical. (Bemoan the modern tech generation if you like, but know that the photo on my 6 yr old’s tablet screen is of the garden he worked on, as it flourished in early summer.) Maybe it’s all those healthy microbes in the soil that enhance the magic.

Finally, community gardening also can be rewarding because of the community aspect. We in the health community know that social connections make a difference to people’s health and emotional well-being.  The impact is even better if the shared connections are positive, and focused on a goal that everyone involved values. So, if you’re working in your own garden at home – whether it’s raised bed, container, or other types of gardening – it’s probably worthwhile to join a gardening club or other group so you can reap the benefits of socializing with other gardeners.

Time Outside Builds Kids’ Social Skills

Time outside could be what your child needs to get along better with his or her peers, according to the results of Canadian research published in the Sept 21, 2016 issue of Health Reports. The researchers were focusing mostly on activity levels and outside time. Not surprisingly, they found that the more time young people spend outside, the more active they are, and the less likely they are to be sitting at home. But, in addition to being more active, outside time appears to improve social health. Every additional hour of outside time for children correlates with better peer relationships and lower likelihood of overall difficulties. Here’s the link, if you want to dig deeper: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2016009/article/14652-eng.pdf

The researchers emphasize that just 15 minutes of outdoors time after school can greatly improve peer relationships. Although they do not explain why that is within this study, they draw on previous research showing that free play outside helps children cooperate better, self-regulate more effectively, and engage in problem-solving better, both alone and with others. They add that simply being physically active more could improve mental and emotional health.

Now, I am just going to be frank,  this doesn’t surprise me. I am what you might most kindly call an outdoorsy mom. This, for me, is a matter of sanity (mine!). Children should be outside, in my opinion, because that is the best place for them to run, scream, and do the things they do, which closely resembles what monkeys and young cubs do when left on their own.

Of course, it’s helpful to have some advanced planning. I always bring water and snacks. I always have a change of clothes and shoes for each child, and a towel. I almost always have a bag so we can pick up trash or recyclables (not cigarette butts!) And I don’t particularly care if the kids get dirty – they are washable.

So, why does outside time help? I’m guessing that for one thing, the energy children burn outside is energy that won’t go into fractiousness and arguing (yes, they do still argue outside tho!). I also think that being outside stimulates imaginative play in a different way. Don’t get me wrong, children can be imaginative indoors, of course, and they very often are. But when outside, the children often have a larger space in which to build their imaginary worlds. And, sometimes, as a bonus, we adults get invited in. Priceless.

End Bullying with Friendship

We just wrapped up a week of anti-bullying activities at my kids’ school. Which made me want to look at what the research really says about what reduces bullying behavior in school. I’ve found the work of a team at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill which highlights the importance of bystanders. They have two papers out related to social networks, bystander behavior, and bullying. The first appeared in the December 2015 issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescents. In this piece the authors, Evans and Smokowski, detail the importance of bystanders stepping in to support the bullied individual. What they found might not be surprising, but it speaks to an avenue for making a change. Those who were more likely to step in and stand up against bullying behavior were those who had positive relationships with their peers and teachers. In other words, people who feel socially confident – like others have their back – are more likely to step in. Interestingly, self esteem didn’t seem to be related, so it seems you could be someone who doubts yourself generally but does not doubt your relationships, and still step in to end a bullying episode.

The same team published an article in the June 2016 Journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development arguing that when those positive relationships are absent and, instead, the bystanders tend to have friends who are delinquent or who are accepting of bullying physically or verbally, they are not going to step in. They might, in fact, make the situation worse.

What does this say to me? Well, as a mother, these reports cause me to think that a wise school will invest in friendship building. This is a lot to put on a school. They have a lot of other things they are supposed to do, mandated to do, want to do, and just aren’t funded to do. And, frankly, it’s not easy to play matchmaker and encourage kids to befriend a wide circle of kids. So it’s tough to say, well, take the time to help kids build strong social networks. But, it seems to be essential, if your goal is to counter bullying.

And although these articles do not touch on this aspect, I will go ahead and say it – we do have data about which kids are more likely to be bullied. So again, the wise school would identify those kids and help to build their social network. Likewise, we know which kids are most likely to become bullies – and in any case, that’s an observable quality! So an immediate solution might be to direct those who bully or seem inclined to bully away from befriending like-minded peers.

Zero. The Acceptable Level of Lead.

The schools in our area have completed water tests and have determined that the lead in the water is below the maximum contamination level (MCL), according to news in our local paper. I am not satisfied with these results, personally. The MCL is set at 15 parts per billion (ppb), which seems a tiny amount, in practical terms. However, this month the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement in their journal Pediatrics (1) emphasizing that the healthy amount of lead in drinking water is zero.

We know now, after several decades of tracking the impact of lead exposure and also the impact of efforts to reduce lead exposure, that lead in childhood leads to lifelong and sometimes costly, expensive problems for individuals and for our communities. Lead exposure is tied to numerous lifelong challenges including but not limited to lower intelligence, antisocial behavior, attention deficits, impaired kidney function and, during reproductive years, spontaneous abortions and poorer birth outcomes overall. Reducing lead exposure is something that everyone should be able to get behind, regardless of their political or religious leanings.

That said, we all balk at the costs of addressing lead, despite evidence that dollars spent now reduce might higher expenses later on. And – perhaps more to the point – we can’t make any decisions without good information. There’s a lot more we need to know to make decisions in this instance. What, exactly, are the lead levels for each school, including private schools? What are our city and country drinking water lead levels? Which bottled water companies report their sources and lead level information? What do we need to do to filter our own water successfully?

As a parent, I encourage my children to drink water. It’s healthier for their body, their brain, and their weight than any other beverage. But it’s hard to have faith that the water they drink is safe for them, without the information. As a health and medical writer with training in public health, and as a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, I am dissatisfied with the reporting locally.

Please take a moment to go to the journal Pediatrics and read this free position statement, which includes all the information you need to get started thinking about lead exposure.

  1. Prevention of Childhood Lead Toxicity. Pediatrics. July 2016, VOLUME 138 / ISSUE 1. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/1/e20161493

Warmth and Mood

Chalk it up to the long snowy cold days we’ve been enduring — or to the research I’ve been doing for a couple of articles about depression — but I wasn’t too surprised to find out that warmth can improve mood. And I thought I’d share it, because I’ve decided to focus as much as I can on the overlap between what we enjoy and what is actually good for us. That’s a lot of overlap by the way, and it includes such lovely treats as long walks in the woods, homemade hot chocolate, and a colorful fruit salad. But for the moment, let’s just talk about warmth.

It turns out that people who are depressed have a disordered body temperature and temperature perception. Their body temperature might be higher than normal, by only a degree and a bit, but they tend to feel cold more often than their peers. Exposure to heat for a period of time appears to reset the system, resulting in relief from depression symptoms. When this is done clinically, the individual sits in an enclosed space in what would usually be unpleasantly high heat, as opposed to sitting bundled up in a blanket by the fire. Although that certainly helps, as does holding a hot mug of cocoa or coffee. You can find the research in the January 2015 issue of Frontiers in Psychology (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=warmth+depression+Raison)

As far as I am concerned, this news explains a current trend: hot yoga. This style of yoga, practiced for an hour or more in a room heated to 108 degrees F, certainly has its devotees. I have to admit that I also enjoy hot yoga, although the vigorous hot yoga has so far proven to be too much for me. But I will grant that one walks out of that hot yoga studio both drenched in sweat and feeling a kind of euphoria that I haven’t had since I used to run in the heat in San Antonio. So perhaps there is something to the research. Now, if you can, go for a long hot sit in a sauna!

Simplicity is Complicated

I’ve been writing for over 20 years now (!). I continue to be surprised that simplicity is often the best solution to the health problems people face. But simplicity seems difficult. Why is simplicity a challenge? I don’t have an answer, but I do have a theory. I think it’s hard because we actually want complexity. It’s as if the complexity and difficulty of what we have to do will validate the challenge ahead of us.

I’ll give you an example. Allergic asthma can be a very scary situation. There’s nothing simple or easy about not being able to breathe. That said, the answer to some allergic asthma could be as simple as changing your cleaning strategy at home or avoiding the situations that might a be a trigger. Better cleaning might mean using a HEPA vacuum cleaner more regularly, choosing fragrance-free products, or getting rid of any mold and mildew. Check out some ideas in this article I wrote for Everydayhealth: http://www.everydayhealth.com/hs/allergic-asthma-in-adults/allergic-asthma/