The Outdoors as Rx
December 30, 2012

The Outdoors as Rx

Based on what we’d seen in movies such as Lost in Translation, and on what we’d heard from friends and family living in Tokyo and other major Japanese cities, the land of the rising sun had always brought to mind images of dense cities with bright neon, packed subway cars, crowded streets, and huge numbers of pedestrians in a very big hurry. That’s why an article in the December issue of Outside magazine totally surprised—and immediately captivated—us. 

“The Nature Cure: Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning” is an excellent review of scientific and social-science research that demonstrates what we’ve long intuited is in fact true: Spending time in nature makes you physically healthier. 

There’s a Word for That

Cultures have long developed words for concepts that are important to them, and in 1982 the Japanese government created the term “shinrin-yoku.” Shinrin-yoku means “forest bathing,” or getting deep outdoors as a preventive health measure. Researchers there believe—and are demonstrating—that deep-woods experiences can lower blood pressure, alleviate depression, reduce stress, and maybe even prevent cancer. 

In addition to a thorough overview of various studies from Japan and around the world, the article contains six prescriptions for incorporating a healthy dose of the outdoors into your everyday life.  We include them here, with recommendations on how to adapt them to life in New York City. 

1. Temper your screen time: Don’t depend on the Discovery Channel to “escape” the city. Though you won’t find true wilderness in New York City, you can find woodsy experiences in all five boroughs. Try Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, Marine Park in Brooklyn, Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, and Silver Lake in Staten Island. 

2. Get dirty: Kids generally love this directive! You can’t shove a spade into a manicured park lawn, but you can dig deep in a sandbox, or get on your hands and knees in the underbrush that lies just off a beaten path to look for rocks, to find twigs of a certain shape or size, or to be closer to the crunch of leaves. Also the botanical gardens in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn have set aside areas where kids can dig for real.  According to some researchers, doing so might help enhance your immune system. 

3. Go blue: Emerging research is showing that being around water makes you healthier both psychologically and physically. There is no shortage of ways to take in a waterscape in New York City: Try walking along the Hudson or East rivers, or head to the islands in New York Harbor. 

4. Use the outdoors as a gym: Leave gadgets such as heart-rate monitors, GPS devices, and iPads at home. Open your eyes and ears as you run through a park—with kids in a stroller, on scooters, or on bikes. “It’s amazing how much wildlife you can find during a jog in a city park if you mindfully look for it,” the article notes. 

5. Find your rhythm: Natural light is necessary in setting healthy sleep-wake cycles and there’s only one place to get it: outdoors. As sunlight wanes in winter, make an effort to add more light to your days: Bundle up and leave early enough to walk to the grocery store or to a far-away subway station—in addition to regular hikes and park explorations. 

6. Take five—minutes or days: Research shows that five minutes outdoors can boost your spirits, and three days in the woods can improve cognition. See point 5 for some ways to work the outdoors into your daily routine. You can also take meals and snacks outside to eat, even in winter, or go outside to walk around and talk about where the next great family trip will be. 

Where do you like to shinrin-yoku in New York City?

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