Connecting with Nature through Parks, Beaches, and Trails will Trump Any Video Game or Movie

As classrooms get larger and the needs of the students more disparate, teachers are leaning more towards technology to assist in the classroom, with the consequence of children spending more time than ever in front of a screen. Adults are experiencing the same in their jobs.  Many employers expect around the clock access to employees through email and texting on smart phones, and meetings are happening more than ever over media like Skype instead of in person.

This dependence on technology for learning and work has transferred to free time as well. You have probably had that moment when you looked around and saw your family, friends, or even yourself spending too much time with eyes glued to a screen.  It used to be that children played outdoors all day and then families gathered in the evenings to listen to a show on the radio.   As time and technology progressed, we moved to black and white televisions.  I still remember each night when the television screen filled with static and the programming stopped for the day.  We eventually progressed to having television shows available around the clock in a variety of vivid colors. New catch phrases have even emerged to describe our gluttonous television consumption, such as “binge watch” your favorite shows. We are busier than ever and are spending much of the day using technology to make us more productive and efficient. Yet we are also choosing to fill much of our limited free time with social media, video games, apps, and “binge watching” shows.


Nature Numb

Through each of these changes we have taken more steps inside and been spending less and less time outside.  Today many people walk around with mini-computers, disguising themselves as telephones, in their hands most of the day.  Smartphones have proven very beneficial, as they allow people to work remotely and there are many useful apps available for keeping you organized, like our motivational and tracking app for our RE:mind program. Much of society is interconnected day and night, using  smartphones for social media, email, texting, streaming videos, selfies, the endless world of apps and games, and even the occasional phone call.  However, there is a careful balance that needs to be kept, as disconnecting is also beneficial. I was made aware of this precarious balance as I looked up and down the beach on a recent vacation. There were far more people sitting in the sun messing with their phones than there were people enjoying the sand and surf.  These people were nature numb, which can be detrimental to our waist lines, our emotional health, our intellectual health, our ability to manage stress, and also our environmental connection and awareness. It is important to remember to find a few moments of technology free time for nature each day.


Virtual  Tigers

When the human body is exposed to a stressor, a cascade of hormones is released to prepare the body to be able to fight the stressor or flee the situation. These hormones increase heart rate and oxygen consumption, and shift blood flow away from digestion and to the muscles for action.  Long ago, humans faced stressors in the form of dangerous environmental situations, like a volcano, or predators that they needed to be able to fight or run from.  However, most of the stressors we face today are not animals and volcanoes, but rather traffic, other people, and even stress from social media and video games. In centuries past, once the body would either run from or fight the stressor, the hormone cascade would be used up and the body would calm back down. However, in our virtual world, there is nothing to actually flee or fight, so the increased hormone levels continue to circulate in the blood stream unless we find alternative ways to manage the stress.  Being exposed to this flush of stress hormones repeatedly over time can lead to negative health effects.  The trick in this century for managing our “virtual tigers” is finding alternative means to manage stress.


Go Green for Serenity

There are a lot of methods for stress management, including meditation, yoga, music, art, exercise, and more.  One of the simplest and least expensive is waiting outside your door.  Simply being immersed in nature has a calming effect on the body.  Also, time spent outdoors is important for exposure to Vitamin D from the sun.  The next time you start to feel yourself getting anxious, step outside for some fresh air. To achieve maximum benefit, try powering down your cell phone so you are not tempted to answer texts, check emails, and scan social media for 10 to  30 minutes to help you truly wind down.  Maybe even make a challenge with friends or family that the first person to look at their device has to buy a treat for the rest of the group.  This is a sure fire way to get folks to keep phones in their pockets.

If you don’t have time each day for a walk outside, there are still many ways to incorporate some nature into your work day including:

  • getting off the subway a block early and walking to the office,
  • parking at the back of the lot or around the corner and walking a little further,
  • eating your lunch outside,
  • taking a call outside, and
  • reading documents outside.

Our country is abound with beautiful parks, trails and beaches waiting to be explored.  The more time you spend outside, the more you will crave it.  Interestingly, the more time you spend away from technology, the less you will crave it. I encourage you to try and incorporate outdoor time into your life every day. You will be amazed at how impactful even a few minutes in nature can be on your mood and energy.

Written by Marci L. Hardy, PhD

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