A little over a decade ago, a psychologist named Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder,” meaning that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, to the detriment of their mental and physical health. It’s not an officially recognized medical disorder. But health professionals from various fields are embracing the idea that America’s shift toward sedentary, indoor lifestyles is harming our health.
“Well, research has shown that people feel better, it improves our mood! Nature is a healer,” said Scott Geller, a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech. For the last 50 years he’s been studying how psychology and the environment interact.
“It’s been shown clearly that nature, that the environment, increases subjective well-being. Now, if we’re stuck behind the television, indoors and we’re sitting on that couch — couch potatoes — we’re missing opportunities to get up and moving. And, of course, there’s a health benefit to moving, and the environment naturally inspires us — once we’re out there — to keep moving.”
Ross Arena is a professor of physical therapy at the University of Ilinois Chicago who focuses on something called “healthy living medicine,” which is using exercise and nutrition to prevent and treat chronic disease with a much greater community focus. He advocates “moving away from the hospital and more towards where people live, work and go to school.”
Arena said the health benefits of being active are not reserved for people training for marathons or gym rats.
“Movement is highly beneficial,” he said. “Instead of ‘let’s talk about exercise,’ let’s talk about movement and actually thinking about three facets of that: so your steps per day, your sitting time, and then participation in a structured exercise program. And all of those are independently valuable. When you synergize them together, they’re even more valuable.”
And the easiest way to do that, he said, is just to go outside. Walk around your block, do yoga on the back porch, visit the local park. And bring the whole family.
“Like a lot of behaviors, what you practice within the families, tends to be what happens,” said Earle Chambers, a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
“So your dietary choices are reflective of whoever is the one making the meals in your home, and it’s the same thing with activity. If you don’t live in a family that’s particularly active, then you tend to not be as active too,” Chambers said.
Familial inactivity has resulted in an all-time high of childhood obesity, diabetes, hypertension and asthma. Despite a myriad of outdoor recreation resources, Appalachia in particular has shockingly high numbers of these diseases – and so far, they’re continuing to rise.
For addictions researcher Peter Thanos, getting outside and exercising could be a tool for preventing and treating addiction.
“Chronic aerobic exercise had an impact on brain chemistry in a way that is consistent with what we know in terms of decreasing vulnerability to drug abuse,” he said. “And this was something that was very, very profound.”
Thanos is referring to research published last month in the online journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.
“Because aerobic exercise has this effect at essentially restoring the balance of brain chemicals in the brain,” he said. “That same imbalance is what’s also found for individuals who have either a vulnerability or dependency for opioids or other drugs.”
Basically, the experts agree – getting outside, being active and enjoying nature are all hugely beneficial to human health. So this summer, I’m heading into nature and inviting you to come along as we find hidden gems, hiking favorites and rivers worth exploring, Outside, in Appalachia.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.