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How many times did you hear one of your parents tell you to go out and play as a kid?  If you were lucky like me, you heard it a lot. Why is that lucky? Because studies are showing that being outdoors can have a huge impact on the welfare of children and their present and future health.  In fact, more and more studies have shown that “natural environments” have a direct and positive impact on the well-being of one’s childhood, and later into adulthood [1].

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Those who know me personally know that I grew up a ‘Y kid’. But few know I’ve actually been volunteering at YMCA Camp Hi-Rock for more than 20 years.  My family and I have been a part of this wonderful community, or, as we say, family, for more than 40 years. Camp Hi-Rock is a overnight experience camp in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.  Along with the principles of the YMCA (Caring, Honesty, Respect and Responsibility), the campers are also educated on the connection between the Mind, Body and Spirit.

Summer camps like Hi-Rock create a safe, loving, refuge away from industry and technology, allowing kids to experience nature in a safe, secure environment that encourages healthy living and independence.  This particular camp gave this ‘indoor kid’ some much needed time outdoors and a place to explore my individuality.  

Now to the science!

Environments, such as this summer camps, have also been shown to increase heart rate variability [2].  What is heart rate variability you may ask? It’s the variation of time between heart beats.  This is an important marker for heart health. A greater variability in the time between heart beats has been shown to be associated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease and long life [5].

Being outdoors has also been shown to lower stress hormones such as cortisol [2].  Cortisol is important for basic physiological functions.   It helps us wake up in the morning and digest our food. But when cortisol levels are too high, the whole body and mind balance gets all out of whack.  High cortisol levels can make one very anxious. It can also decrease wound healing time, make it difficult to recall memories and it can even make it harder for the body to breakdown sugar which can lead to increased adipose (fat) tissue [6].  (If you haven’t learned this yet, sugar when not burned off goes to the production of fat).  So you can see why having the right amount of cortisol is so important for proper health.

Besides the lowering of cortisol which can decrease body-fat-percentage, nature and summer camp can also improve attitudes towards physical activity and hence, fitness [1-4].  So often the only exercise our kids get is in gym class at school.  I don’t know what your experience was like in gym class, but for me, it wasn’t always my favorite part of the day.  Taking a kid out of the gym and exposing them to new activities, games and sports, allows them to connect with others and their physical selves.  For me, Y’s international connections, allowed me experience rugby, netball and Australian Rules football, sports I would’ve never been exposed to in a typical American public school gym class.  This association of exercise equaling fun is so important for one’s self-esteem, compassion towards others and maintaining a healthy relationship with exercise as one gets older.

Studies show kids are progressively staying inside.  Whether this is due to the exponential growth of technology or our growing fear of the world outside our house, it’s time to kick them out of bed and off the couch! Open up our children’s world to our beautiful planet in an effort to improve their current, and future, states of physical and mental health.

 

*The Central Connecticut Coast YMCA provides outdoor summer camping experiences for children across its many branches. It also offers scholarships to kids unable to afford summer camps such as Hi-Rock. For more information on YMCA Camp Hi-Rock, check out their website at camphirock.org.

Works cited

  1. Bowler DE & et.al. “A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments.” BMC Public Health 10.456 (2010 Aug):1-10. Web.
  2. Lee J & et.al. “Effect of forest bathing on physiological and psychological responses in young Japanese male subjects.” Public Health 125.2 (Feb 2011): 93-100. Web.
  3. Eyre El & et.al. “Physical activity patterns of ethnic children from low socio-economic environments within the UK.” Journal of Sports Science 33.3 (Feb 2015): 232-42. Web.
  4. Giovanna Calogiuri and Stiliani Chroni. “The impact of the natural environment on the promotion of active living: An integrative systematic review.” Calogiuri and Chronic BMC Public Health 873.14 (2014): 1-27. Web.
  5. Zulfiqar U & et al. “Relation of high heart rate variability to healthy longevity.” Am J Cardiol. 105.8 (2010 Apr 15):1181-5. Web.
  6. “Cortisol.” Wikipedia.org. NP, 22 Jan 2018. Web. March 2018.

Post Author: Dr. Sara