Good Medicine from the Great Outdoors

Excerpt from the February 2019 issue of the Missouri Conservationist
By Bill Graham, media specialist
for the Missouri Dept. of Conservation

Going outdoors for fun is reason enough to enjoy nature. Just ask an angler landing a big bass or a hiker smitten by a cardinal perched on a pine tree bough. Science, however, is adding one more big reason for contact with nature — better health.

Even a light dose of nature helps, says Anand Chockalingam, a cardiologist at University of Missouri Health Care in Columbia.

The heart doctor enjoys hiking in Missouri’s parks and forests. He recognizes the restive feeling of well-being that settles in his mind as he walks among the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. But he’s also seen positive health results when his patients recovering from heart disease or surgery head outdoors. Mind and body are intertwined, and nature and the outdoors can nurture both.

“We need to relax and refresh the mind,” Chockalingam said. Having fun outdoors provides physical exercise that helps the body. But also, “you feel more alive, more confident. Physically, we may be exhausted, but mentally we feel more rejuvenated, more alive.”

Noted author Richard Louv blazed a trail in the field of how nature benefits health with his 2005 best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The book touched a nerve in a world where technology has separated children’s brains and bodies from rhythms and gentle influences found outdoors.
In Last Child’s early chapters, he wrote about climbing trees and exploring overgrown fields as a youth in the Kansas City area: “The woods were my Ritalin. Nature calmed me, focused me, and yet excited my senses.”

Last Child and Louv’s follow-up books about nature’s health benefits for adults and families tap a growing body of science-based studies that link the outdoors to good health. Scientists studying health benefits from nature have measured the human body, brain, and behaviors. They’ve found nature boosts the ability of children and adults to learn.

“The studies strongly suggest that time in nature can help many children build confidence in themselves, reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and help them focus,” Louv said. “Time spent in nature is obviously not a cure-all, but it can be an enormous help, especially for kids and adults who are stressed by circumstances beyond their control.”

Getting children out in nature also helps grow conservation values, now and for the future. The Missouri Department of Conservation offers natural play areas for children at some nature centers. Children can climb on logs stacked in designs or on boulders. They explore and test their creativity by building hideaways with sticks or small tree limbs left on-site. The play areas are nestled among shady trees, native shrubs, and wildflowers.

Rare is the doctor who advises a patient to “catch four trout and call me in the morning.” But quite common is the doctor or minister who fishes for their own benefit. Nature is now scientifically proven as useful medicine — preventative or remedy. Going outdoors, Chockalingam says, “is a very intelligent way of taking care of ourselves.”

Get healthy in nature this year. Visit mdc.mo.gov/places-go or download the free MO Outdoors app for ideas on where to go near you.