Kids should always be supervised by a responsible adult, Brown advises, and parents should be familiar with which playgrounds are safe in their neighborhood. For playground safety tips, check the web site of the National Association for Playground Safety.
Safety is an important factor for adults, as well. Whether you’re taking an urban hike or a walk in the park, the USDA Forest Service recommends that you do the following:
– Go with a companion (or at least let someone know where and when you’ll be going)
– Keep your eye on the weather
– Wear appropriate clothing for the conditions and locale
– Be aware of your surroundings
– Especially if it’s warm outside, take along a bottle of water so you won’t become dehydrated
– Slather on the sunscreen, and, if necessary, insect repellent.
Clearing Your Mind
Being outside not only improves physical health but offers mental clarity as well, which is one reason certified sex counselor Eric Marlowe Garrison suggests that his clients meet him outside.
“People talk more when they’re moving,” says Garrison, who practices in New York City and Richmond, Va. “The act of physical movement triggers the mind. I can accomplish more with my clients during a 45-minute walk in Central Park than in two hours in my office.”
Garrison, who calls himself a “country boy” at heart, started taking his practice outside about five years ago. At that time, his decision was based on personal preference, but he now finds that research is backing up his instincts.
In a 2010 Japanese study of shinrin-yoku (defined as “taking in the forest atmosphere, or forest bathing”), for example, researchers found that elements of the environment, such as the odor of wood, the sound of running stream water, and the scenery of the forest can provide relaxation and reduce stress; those taking part in the study experienced lower levels of cortisol, a lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.
For Garrison, however, the studies really don’t matter. They only confirm what he has long believed. “I can’t deny what I’m seeing with my clients,” he says. “There’s a world of benefit to being out in nature.”
Getting Kids on the Path to Health
Other health care professionals are also finding that being in a natural environment has numerous benefits. School nurse Stacy Bosch, of the Clark County School District in Nevada, sees many students who are overweight or have type 2 diabetes. More often than not, these kids spend very little time outside.
To get the kids — and their parents — away from the TV and the computer and increase their physical activity in order to help control weight and blood sugar, Bosch writes a prescription for the entire family to go to one of the county’s nature areas and simply take a walk.
So far, Bosch has received positive feedback from families that have followed her prescription. “They’re excited to be doing something together that will benefit all of them,” she says.
Bosch is one of three dozen health care professionals who took part in the inaugural Health Care Nature Champions training program, offered through a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Environmental Education Foundation, and a variety of health care professionals and organizations. The idea for nature champions resulted from the 2007 Children and Nature Summit, during which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff met with doctors, educators, and outdoors professionals about finding ways to overcome “nature-deficit disorder” in children. The two-year pilot project aims to improve family health by connecting children and their families with nature sites that are easy to get to.
Maria Brown, MD, a member of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s department of pediatrics, says the Nature Champion program is a handy tool for prescribing a more active lifestyle for kids and their families.
“It gives health care providers a concrete, positive way to suggest their patients get more physical activity,” Brown says. “Who’s going to argue with a prescription to get outside more?” The prescriptions come with maps to nearby parks and refuges, many of which offer outdoor experiences led by park rangers and volunteers.
How Much Time
Most major medical organizations recommend that children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, Brown says.
“What the ‘Children and Nature Initiative’ is trying to advocate for is that as much of this time as possible be outside,” Brown says, adding that outdoor time is good for children’s physical, mental, social, and emotional development.
“Most people understand the importance of getting kids moving,” says Angelique Marquez, RD, of the Children’s Heart Center in Las Vegas. Even before being trained as a Nature Champion, Marquez prescribed outdoor activity for patients who had heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.