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Archive for November 15th, 2009

Aside from achieving better Fitness by hiking and exercising in the Forest, there is ample evidence that exercising or interacting with nature (even having live plants in your work environment) helps combat burnout, reduces mental stress and reduces mental fatigue. Read on for more about this research and it’s implications for our daily lives.

A Walk in the Woods

By John Lofy in Michigan Today, a publication of the University of Michigan

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University of Michigan School of Natural Resources. Photo from JM Olsen Corporation

Professor Rachel Kaplan’s office at U-M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment looks out over a large oak tree. Potted plants crowd her window sill. Beyond these small patches of nature loom the buildings of central campus. But, she says, a little bit of nature goes a long way.

She would know. Kaplan and her husband, professor Stephen Kaplan, were among the first academics to study the psychological benefits of nature. Colleagues and collaborators for decades, they have shown that natural settings—trees, grass, gardens, and the like—have a profound, positive impact on both mental and physical health.

Both Kaplans hold joint appointments: Rachel in SNRE and Psychology, Stephen in Psychology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. They both take particular pride in graduate students they have mentored over the years. Students working with the Kaplans have made some striking discoveries:

• Studies by Bernadine Cimprich showed that the psychological health of cancer patients “improved dramatically” after they spent 20 minutes a day, three days a week, doing restorative activities such as gardening or walking in the woods. A control group that did not do the activities showed notably less improvement.

• Studies by Frances Kuo and William Sullivan found that residents of public housing projects who live near trees “showed all kinds of benefits,” says Stephen. “More civility, less aggression—and girls were more likely to study” their schoolwork.

• A study of AIDS caregivers by Lisa Canin found that the single most powerful factor in avoiding stress-related burnout was “locomotion in nature”—such as walking, running, biking, or canoeing. (The quickest route to burnout was watching television.)

Better yet, says Rachel, the natural setting “doesn’t have to be big or pristine” to have a positive effect. “Most of all, it has to be nearby.” A study by Ernest Moore of prisoners in Milan, Michigan, showed that simply having a view of farmland from a prison cell reduced inmates’ need for health care.

What’s so powerful about nature? Stephen theorizes that it comes down to brain function. The source of much mental distress, he says, is overuse of “directed attention”—such as concentrating on work. “Sustained directed attention is difficult and fatiguing. When people talk about mental fatigue, what is actually fatigued is not their mind as a whole, but their capacity to direct attention.” And it can make people “distractible and irritable.”

To escape the discomforts of mental fatigue, people often turn to activities that “capture” their attention. They find external events to distract them, so they don’t have to concentrate so hard. Watching TV, for instance, requires little willpower: the programs do the work, and the brain follows along.

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Watching t.v. doesn't allow for mental rest. Image from salviaforme

Similarly, says Stephen, “many people find an auto race fascinating.” Fast motion, loud noises, and smells captivate the brain.

The Kaplans refer to activities like watching TV or sporting events as “hard fascination.” The stimuli are loud, bright, and commanding. The activities are engaging and fun, but they don’t allow for mental rest.

Soft fascination, on the other hand, is the kind of stimulation one finds on, say, a stroll along the beach or in the woods. Nothing overwhelms the attention, says Stephen, “and the beauty provides pleasure that complements the gentle stimulation.” The brain can soak up pleasing images, but it can also wander, reflect, and recuperate.

Most people, say the Kaplans, intuitively know this. But often, they either don’t do it, or they may not have opportunities to get out in nature. That’s too bad, because the Kaplans have shown that if you’re upset, frazzled, or suffering, an easygoing walk in the woods or even along a tree-lined street is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Read more about the Kaplans and their research here.

Ways You Can Increase Your Interaction with Nature

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Gardening for stress relief. Photo from IVPeaceFest.com

• Plant a garden. Even in the city if you have an outdoor porch you can plant a small garden in pots and window boxes. Weeding the garden,  “playing” in the dirt, and taking the time to nurture your plants, nurtures your own nervous system and allows you some peaceful moments free from everyday stress.

• Bring live plants into your workspace. Live plants help clean the air and make your environment naturally beautiful and less stressful.

• Go for regular walks in nearby forest preserves or parks.

• Make after dinner walks around your neighborhood part of your family routine. This is a great way to spend quality time with friends and family, get regular exercise and get away from the stress of the TV, telephone and temptations of junk food.

• Volunteer in a nearby community garden.

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Cabrini-Green Community Vegetable Garden (taken by Strannik45).

• Try snow shoeing, sledding, cross country skiing or walking in the fresh fallen winter snow. (It’s coming soon to Chicago so be ready with warm layers and waterproof hiking boots!)

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Snowshoeing. Image from outdoors.mainetoday.com

• When possible, alter your driving route to go through area parks, forest preserves or stretches of the road that gives you a view of Lake Michigan, trees and natural bodies of water like rivers and ponds.

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Fall Colors at Argonne

• Plant an indoor herb garden in a well lit window for the winter. It gives you the double benefit of fresh herbs for your meals and the moments of stress relief you get when tending your mini-garden.

• As much as possible, exercise outdoors. Run and hike in the park or forest preserves.

• When time permits, work outdoors. Take

your laptop to the beach or park. In inclement weather find malls or indoor public spaces with plants and trees.

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