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Tapping into the Power of Nature

By Emily Strand, Program Specialist, Vital Aging Network

As a child, I loved the outdoors. I spent my time climbing trees, building forts in the brush next to cornfields, catching bugs, and planning neighborhood games of kick-the-can at dusk in the summer. My love for the outdoors was so intense that I came up with creative solutions to avoid going back in the house.  I resorted to stealing toilet paper from home and placing it near my forts. I dug up carrots from our family garden for snacks, and the water hose became my primary drinking vessel. I knew that if I went home for any of those needs, it would be naptime. I didn’t want to nap; I wanted to play outside.

Fortunately, my love of the outdoors has continued into adulthood and provides me with many opportunities for maintaining good health. My experience matches what research is finding: spending time outdoors is good for us! Today’s youth, however, are less and less exposed to nature and the outdoors than previous generations. In a New York Times article, “Head Out for a Daily Dose of Green Space,” Jane E. Brody discusses a Kaiser Family Foundation study that found that children ages 8 to 18 spend 7 ½ hours per day inside using some sort of electronic media. Adults are not faring much better. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 72-million adults in the U.S. are medically obese and more than 40 percent do not engage in regular exercise. Our sedentary lifestyle is seriously impacting the health of Americans, both young and old.

In 2005, Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods, a book outlining studies that highlight the benefits that nature plays in both physical and mental health. Louv was a contributing author to Psychology Today in January 2009 and wrote the article “No More ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder.’” He writes, “Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis but rather a way to describe the psychological, physical, and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature.” According to the National Park Service, studies have found that exposure to nature improves wellness and mental health, reduces stress, and assists in lowering blood pressure.

Parks across the country, and the world, are taking steps to improve the health of the public. This initiative, called Healthy Parks — Healthy People US, is named and modeled after a movement that originated in Australia. In June 2010, President Obama began America’s Great Outdoor Initiative, which aims to help Americans (re)connect with the outdoor environment.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), 57 percent of Minnesotans rank outdoor recreation as a “very important” part of their lives. The DNR also indicates that participation in outdoor recreation is declining in adults ages 16 to 44. Minnesotans blame lack of adequate time, prohibitive costs, lack of companions, and the effort required. For people 45 and older, outdoor-recreation rates have stayed consistent.

The DNR expects that Minnesota’s aging baby boomers will continue or possibly increase their involvment on the need for outdoor recreation. The DNR has many programs to help draw people, both young and old, to the outdoors. It has recently partnered with REI and Conservation Corps Minnesota to offer the “I Can Camp” workshops. These workshops are perfect for people and families who think they want to camp but don’t know how. Trained staff is on hand to teach participants how to set up camp and tents, start fires, and cook outdoors. The DNR also is recruiting and using mentors to teach fishing, hunting, and other outdoor recreational activities to youth in hopes of passing the love of the outdoors to future generations.

My love for the outdoors continues today. After all, wasn’t Oscar Wilde correct when he said, "It seems to me that we all look at nature too much and live with her too little."

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