In a world turning upside down, turning inside out can be a good thing

There is no doubt about it: COVID-19 has turned the world upside down and inside out.  Millions across the globe have become infected, and individuals of all ages are dying from this infection.  Never before has the entire world dropped everything; their livelihood, their pleasures, and their routines, in order to protect themselves and those around them.

Amidst all this devastation and difficulty, however, I am seeing something beautiful from our world turning upside down, and that is that it is also turning inside out.  I see evidence of this merely by looking out my window.  People, while socially distancing, are walking down this typically quiet street all hours of the day.  Young couples are carrying newborns and holding hands with toddlers, three-generation families are waiting for elders to catch up, and siblings are passing by laughing and goofing off.  As I venture outside myself, I walk past parents playing ball with their children, a brother and sister building a fort in nearby woods, and homeowners planting gardens or weeding beds that have been neglected for years.

Hundreds of research studies have touted the benefits of nature and the outdoors for people of all ages.  Hospitalized patients who have a view of the outside fare better in many ways, including experiencing faster healing times and decreased pain.  Those living near green space have a better sense of well-being and are less anxious and depressed.  Walking outdoors amongst green space reduces cortisol levels, a measure of stress in our body, and can boost our immune system.  And students spending more time in green playgrounds experience better social, developmental, and academic skills.

Despite evidence touting the benefits of nature, our society has become increasingly more sedentary and indoor-focused over the past several decades.  According to Child Mind, the average American child spends 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured outside activity but over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.  Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined this issue of people disconnecting with the outdoors, “Nature Deficit Disorder.” However, it has been difficult to convince people that doing something so simple such as going outside can help lower their blood pressure and stress levels, and can decrease their risk of becoming obese or developing diabetes.  Or that merely being in nature can give them a greater sense of well-being and rejuvenation.

So it warms my heart to see that people who are allowed and can socially distance, are finally getting outside, using nature to help them deal with stress levels that are through the roof.   Perhaps it is because there is nothing else to do, or maybe they instinctively know that nature improves their mental health.  Either way, they are reconnecting with nature and undoubtedly reaping the benefits.

How do we continue this trend after our massive shutdown is over, when people are no longer working from home, and the nation has reopened restaurants, schools, and other amenities?  How will we remind people that nature will always be there to reduce stress, anxiety, and decrease the risk of obesity and its complications?

I fear that nature will go the way of vaccines.  Remember when H1N1 influenza bombarded the U.S. and people were incredibly sick, much more devastating than during a typical flu season?  When the vaccine first came out, people were banging down our office doors demanding they get the vaccine, angry that there was a wait due to a shortage because of such high demand.  Fast forward a few years later, when enough people became vaccinated so that H1N1 wasn’t as prominent in the U.S.  People started to refuse the vaccine, forgetting how terrible the illness was not long ago.  People don’t have short memories, so how will they remember how much the outdoors helped them in their times of need?

As health care providers, we need to familiarize ourselves with the American Public Health Association’s policy statement that recommends improving health and wellness through access to nature.  And we need to embed an image in our minds of families spending times outdoors during this tumultuous period so we can remind ourselves and others now, in a year, and in five years about how important it is to turn our world inside out and continue to reap the benefits of being outdoors.

Stacy Beller Stryer is a pediatrician.

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