When I am feeling “off” or grumpy, I know 9 times out of 10, I can reset or at least improve my mood, productivity, or patience (particularly with my sweet children) by going outside. When I was working burned out and overwhelmed, I would take walks outside with 2 other physicians if they were in the same outpatient office as me that day. I took those walks not because my work was done or my charts completed or even my lunch eaten, but because I NEEDED them. We whined a little, vented, people watched, shared hopes, but more importantly, we got our blood pumping and changed our environment for 20 minutes.
When I come home from work now, the strain of the job is still there, even if I do love it. Thankfully, our mailbox is a block down the street, so I have an excuse to go outside. Because I might get something in the mail. Like jury duty summons, or a new Betabrand purchase, or another medical journal that I keep meaning to read but don’t quite get past the first article. Anyway. The point is, I come back with the mail- and a renewed spirit for the “sprint” portion of daily parenting triathlon that is dinner with 3 kids and bedtime routines.
Turns out, there is research to back up my anecdotal experience. There is a reason I feel like I need to go outside. Research shows being outdoors and in nature decreases negative thoughts, improves attention, decreases stress, encourages exercise, boosts immunity, improves or protects vision, decreases mental fatigue, reduces inflammation, and improves overall health and longevity.
Currently, I live in outdoors central. It’s beautiful – usually sunny – with ample biking and hiking trails. I don’t want to miss this! And I know my kids learn from what I model, so I am trying: go outside, take care of yourself, don’t be afraid to learn new things. Like biking.
I learned to ride a bike fairly young like most kids. I remember riding in a tight circle around the cul de sac over and over, bike leaned down to the ground on the turn. I don’t remember a helmet. Or sunscreen. But I survived. Then I remember biking when I would visit my grandparents. I used my grandmother’s cool pedal brake bike with basket on the front. My sister and I would disappear forever exploring all through their neighborhood. Then I went to college and med school. I am certain I didn’t ride a bike then. I ate pizza, queso, cookies, and the 1/2 plate special at Johnny Ray’s BBQ while studying. I didn’t understand how being active would actually help me with the studying part. But I survived that too. Before I started residency, my hubs and I took a vacation to Washington, D.C. We rented bikes to “bike the sights.” I had NEVER ridden a bike with handle bar brakes. I was terrified I was going to flip my un-athletic self over the front of that bike. And there was traffic! D.C. Traffic! And people got mad when I rode on the sidewalk! I made it, with much coaxing from the hubs. I wished we had rented segways the whole time I was on that bike.
I didn’t ride a bike again until last year. For mother’s day/my birthday, my hubs took me out and got me a big girl bike. The guy at the store picked out three bikes for me and let me ride the trail adjacent to the bike shop to see how they felt. For reals cyclists were on that trail totally spotting me for the fake I was, yelling “on your left” as they passed me. I almost yelled back “on your right,” but that seem obvious. I took out a bush and didn’t quite jump a curb (slowed down too much?) with 2 of the bikes. But one bike was just right for this Goldilocks. I’ve been working on riding it in the neighborhood for the past year. I haven’t flipped over the handlebars yet.
My eldest learned to ride last year, but it wasn’t until this year that she figured out how to stand up to make it up the hill that is required to complete our neighborhood loop. There was a good bit of exasperated wailing, resting in the shade in someone’s yard, and even once reassuring a concerned passerby that, yes, we were ok and no, we did not need a ride home. My middle one learned to bike this spring. Once he learned how to balance he was off like a kid wanting to visit the ER and meet his parents’ deductible. We are talking second day- riding with one hand, one foot on the handlebars, standing on one pedal type of stuff. I try not to watch.
So we knew the bigs were ready to start taking advantage of all the biking where we live. The best part about learning something later in life, but while my kids are still young, is not feeling as if I have to start out “knowing it all.” I only have to bike well enough to lead the kids on something they can handle. Nothing crazy. And since we still have to pull the littlest in the trailer behind us, we are limited to some pretty smooth terrain. We were pleasantly surprised last month when the bigs biked 6 miles round trip in Vail at a conference I attended with the family in tow.
Ready for more, this past weekend we set out about 8am, armed with snacks, water, and sunscreen. Lest you think I have my full act in gear, please know I left behind a sink full of dirty dishes, clothes in both the dryer and the washer and 3 laundry baskets. Stuff was all over the floor, and my TO DO list was longer than ever. And we went anyway. Our goal was a 7 mile round trip from the trail head to a lake/park/playground and back again. This trail was not paved, so it was harder for the kids than the paved 6 miles from last month. But we stuck it out! I even taught the kids to say “on your left” when they passed. No one replied “on your right.” We rode through trees, along train tracks while “racing” a train (that kept them from stopping near the end), to a beautiful park with water, ducks, families fishing, the whole idyllic nine yards. And the way home was ever so slightly a downhill grade, so we actually made it back to the car.
Here’s the parent win part (aside for the modeling good self care behavior, exercise for the kids, yada yada). They all went to sleep when we got home.
Well, except the one with my personality. But he did lay in the bed and take selfies with me, which is a win for this kid. 2 out of 3 ain’t bad people.
So what’s my point? My point is that if you are like me, you have to stop waiting for everything on your list to be done, or have just the right timing, etc. You will be happier, more productive, more capable of work and parenting and LIVING if you prioritize self care, being outside, being active. It’s not something that we “get” to do if we get all our chores done. It’s something we need to do to make us better and likely faster at doing our “chores.”
PS: If reading this stresses you out and makes you feel like you have one more thing to do to be good enough, stop. Breathe. You may be burned out or overwhelmed and need something more than just a bike ride. This is meant to be encouragement, not to make you feel worse. If it does, talk about it with someone, me included. I’ve been there too.
Below are some references. They are not in “journal” format… because as you guys know, I have other things to do. Like laundry. But there are hyperlinks!
- Visual color perception in green exercise: positive effects on mood and perceived exertion.
- Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review.
- A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study
- Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking
- Going outdoors daily predicts long-term functional and health benefits among ambulatory older people.
- Is physical activity in natural environments better for mental health than physical activity in other environments?
- A forest bathing trip increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins in female subjects.
- Parental history of myopia, sports and outdoor activities, and future myopia.
- A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running.
- The ecological validity of laboratory cycling: Does body size explain the difference between laboratory- and field-based cycling performance?
- Outdoor physical activity and self rated health in older adults living in two regions of the U.S.
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).
- Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan
- Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Rea
- Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation
- The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature
- Interacting with Nature Improves Cognition and Affect for Individuals with Depression
- Effects of short-term forest bathing on human health in a broad-leaved evergreen forest in Zhejiang Province, China.
- Preventive medical effects of nature therapy
- Therapeutic effect of forest bathing on human hypertension in the elderly.
- The association between time spent outdoors and myopia in children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Outdoor Activity during Class Recess Reduces Myopia Onset and Progression in School Children
- Outdoor activity reduces the prevalence of myopia in children.
- Restorative Effects of Natural Environment Experiences
- Children With Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park
- The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework
- Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function
- Green space, urbanity, and health: how strong is the relation?
- Morbidity is related to a green living environment