How this physician reconnects with nature

On this beautiful spring day, “Nature is my medicine,” wrote Sara Moss Wolfe. And yes it is mine as well. As Albert Einstein stated, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Some days that reassurance is all it takes to relax and make things better. Indeed, after a bad shift of 12 hours, all I ever want to do is go outside. It doesn’t matter what time of the day or night my shift ends, just coming out of this sanitary institutional building yields relief.

Taking a deep breath the minute I walk outside into the real world takes me away from any pain or suffering that I may have encountered, and I can usually sense the release of stress and tension lift away and yield clarity. I am sure most of you can agree that after a stifling day at work, the drive home can be relaxing. Seeing the sunrise, the blue sky, the clouds or even rain can put all things into perspective and instill in us the wonder of how small indeed we are in the grand scheme of this fabulous world we live in.

We as providers often continue to try and express to our patients the value of being outside in the great outdoors. We comprehend and attempt to emphasize the medicinal value of 15 minutes of sunlight and the need for that vitamin D.

We know that longevity is tied to exercise and better health, and we all have personally experienced the relief of stress as we sit on the beach and watch the waves come in repetitively. The emphasis of health care can often overlook the simple pleasures that nature can bring and for many of our patients, it is an all or none response. For example, I have a bad right knee, and after arthroscopic surgery a few years ago I gave up running. While this lack of exercise has had some impact in the size of my jeans, because, I have yet to find another activity that can give as much pleasure and well as one that is as effective as running was for my soul and waistline. I do, however, walk regularly, albeit probably not as much or as far as I should.

Yet, and these brief outdoor encounters around my neighborhood are a fabulous reprieve from the indoors. Paul Dudley White, MD, said, “A vigorous walk will do more good for an unhappy, but otherwise healthy adult, than all the medicine or psychology in the world” and reaffirmed by Hippocrates: “Nature is the healer of disease.” We as physicians know that these moments are necessary for good health, so how do we encourage our patients to take part in the great outdoors? One simple thing is to change the venue. I had to change the perception that I had to run five miles to be healthy; now I look for other avenues to encourage health.

Last year I moved into a home that had raised garden beds. I started gardening and just found that this activity has great unexpected medical benefits:

1. Increased exposure to vitamin D — the required 15 minutes of daily sunshine is easy to acquire while gardening.
2. Improved mood – satisfaction with obtaining fresh homegrown vegetables.
3. Decreases dementia risk.
4. Aerobic exercise — pulling weeds is hard.
5. A sense of connection to Mother Earth.
6. Goal setting — finding something to look forward to and giving something to accomplish.

Gardening has given me a connection to the world and outdoors.

As a physician, I am attempting to balance medicine and my well-being. Indeed, gardening has made me appreciate the beauty of the earth, how it yields fruit and sustenance with the help of my hand, and it allows me to marvel at the cycle of life.

The earth is our mother and our healer; without her, lost would be countless cures. Many of which have yet to be discovered, but we punish and exploit mother earth as we do not see the impact our civilized world has on her. So how can we make an impact and what simple things can we do or ask our patients to do? Here are a few easy items that can make a significant impact:

1. Turn off the lights every time you leave the room.
2. Unplug devices and turn off electronics when not in use.
3. Buy locally-grown produce.
4. Try carpooling or public transport instead of driving.
5. Use reusable shopping bags.
6. Fix leaky taps and turn off the water when not using it.
7. Switch from disposable to reusable.
8. Recycle and reuse as much as you can.
9. Find a way to plant a tree in your neighborhood.
10. Upgrade your appliances to energy-efficient ones.

Learn more about climate change, advocate for our earth and its people, attend a farmers’ market, support ethical trade, and be the change. And remember: any time in the outdoors experiencing the beauty of nature, and its glory is time well spent.

Maria Perez-Johnson is a pediatrician.

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