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Get out: Just five minutes outside can improve your health

A group walks the cosmic trail at Prariewoods Spirituality Center in Hiawatha on September 1, 2015. Prairiewoods offers many programs and retreats for people to attend and reconnect with the earth and their spirituality. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)
A group walks the cosmic trail at Prariewoods Spirituality Center in Hiawatha on September 1, 2015. Prairiewoods offers many programs and retreats for people to attend and reconnect with the earth and their spirituality. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)
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We know getting outside is good for us. But, it turns out, there’s scientific proof.

According to Dr. Suzanne Bartlett, medical director at Mercy Integrative Medicine Center in Cedar Rapids, research has found that spending time in nature, specifically forests, has “properties that are beneficial to healing.”

In Japan, Shinrin-yoku — a term coined in 1982 that translates to “forest bathing” — has been found to promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rates and blood pressure, as well as increased parasympathetic (rest and relaxation) nerve activity while decreasing sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nerve activity, according to a 2010 study published in the journal of the Japanese Society for Hygiene, Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine.

Other studies point to phytoncides — organic compounds found in plants that protect the plant from viruses and bacteria.

Bartlett says exposure to phytoncides can produce similar results in humans: boost the immune system, protect against bacteria and viruses and boost tumor-fighting cells. They also help with depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder and even self-esteem.

A 2010 study published in Environmental Science and Technology concluded that exercising outdoors improved self-esteem and mood, particularly in mentally ill patients. Exercising in natural environments instead of indoors also showed increases in revitalization, positive engagement and energy, while exhibiting decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.

No, you don’t have to eat plants or hug a tree, Bartlett says with a laugh. You simply need to breathe in the fresh, phytoncide-filled air for just five minutes each day to reap the benefits.

Even a view of trees from a window can be helpful, she adds.

“Patients in a hospital room who have a view of trees have a shorter length of stay, fewer post operative complications and require less pain medicine than those who have a room without a view of a tree,” she says. “So yes, you can actually derive benefits from just seeing trees, but being out in nature, of course, has the greatest benefits.”

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Vitamin D — with mood lifting properties that help reduce depression and anxiety symptoms — helps, too, says Cynthia Vaske, a clinical social worker and manager of the employee assistance program at Unity Point Health in Cedar Rapids. Ecotherapy is just one way the program assists Unity Point employee’s in reducing stress in their work and personal life.

Vaske also stressed the importance of simply getting out of the office, away from the computer screen and confined spaces shared with potentially aggravating co-workers.

“If we look at where we are in our lives today, life is just full. Work, activities, technology, you know, everything boom boom boom,” says Emilia Sautter, ecospirituality coordinator at Prairiewoods Spirituality Center in Hiawatha. “I think it’s exhausting for a lot of people.”

Which is why she thinks we need to get away from our desks and into nature, even if we’re doing important work.

Bartlett agrees — being around all the “lights and noises of all of our technology” really “frazzles the brain,” she says. “Anything we can do to break that cycle of all that stimuli from technology is really important.”

Bartlett has seen the benefits first hand — both personally and in her patients.

She often asks her patients what they used to be able to “lose themselves” in when they were a child.

“Very frequently my patients will tell me it had to do with playing outside,” she says. “I’ll often say, ‘Well when was the last time you did that? Why can’t you do that now?’”

Vaske is asking the same question, especially considering we grew up with recess, which she believes was crucial to our well-being.

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“If adults could structure their day so they could have recess, I think we would see a lot less issues with mental health,” Vaske says.

Although it’s especially challenging to get out year-round with Iowa’s bitter cold winters, Bartlett encourages people to try get out, even for just five minutes each day.

“I prescribe outdoor therapy for everyone,” she says.

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