In Traditional Chinese Medicine, one whole group of therapeutic exercises involve what is called “Nature’s Therapy”. The ancient Chinese believed that there is something inherently therapeutic about being around nature. Sunbathing, air baths, water therapy even gardening have their place in the constellation of therapeutic practices that comprise Traditional Chinese Medicine. To see what modern science has to say about it please join us on September 19 at 11:00 a.m. ET, when Dr. Gregory Bratman of the University of Washington will give a talk about nature experience and how it affects health. You can watch it on NIH Videocast go to https://nccih.nih.gov/news/events/IMlectures?nav=govd.
An Antidote to Stress
Nature’s Therapy is one reason Tai Chi and Qigong are traditionally practiced outside in parks. In addition to the normal benefits of exercise, going outside to do it provides additional benefits. Getting out in nature can provide much-needed stress relief in our high-tech, high-stress lives. Being in nature’s slower cycles can offset the hectic pace of modern life. Hanging out in natural settings has very healthy effects on physiology. Being around plants can reduce heart rates and blood pressure. Taking care of a garden gives you something to focus on besides your troubles. Walking and taking time to smell the roses are better ways to deal with stress than hollering and fretting.
Remember when your parents told you to go out and play? We all think that our children are watching too much TV and should use more of their body than video games require. “Actions speak louder than words” means we need to set a good example, yet most of us grownups do not. Even our older generations who are presumably wiser, have given up smelling real flowers for watching pictures of flowers on the Discovery channel. Modern life has reduced the average retiree to keeping up with TV shows and commercials as their second career – a full-time job of 60 hours a week.
My wife, Jacqui, is often consulted by the grandparents and parents of children who are being labeled behavior problems at school. Her advice is based upon professional training and personal experience: “We are all concerned that our children are not active enough, but, when they are active, we put them on Ritalin to reduce their activity. We cannot have it both ways. If we want people to be active, we have to quit sedating people so they will sit still! Until recently, if a therapist wanted a child or an adult to calm down or sleep better, they prescribed ’exercise’ as part of their treatment so they could burn up the excess energy in a constructive and healthy way. We have to quit giving mixed messages.
Nature and Reduced Pain
One study found that hospital patients whose rooms overlooked parks left the hospital sooner and needed fewer painkillers than patients who looked out on other buildings. One hundred years ago, people were big on what they called the “nature cure.” They noticed that people who were cooped up inside all the time grew sickly and depressed. Victorian era hospitals and sanitariums would have staff walk people around in the fresh air to revitalize the spirit. Today’s research on indoor pollution levels shows that energy efficient buildings admit little fresh air, so indoor air can be as much as 100 times more polluted than outside air.
Nature and Mental Health
Sunlight and fresh air are believed to enhance your health when you exercise out of doors. Sunbathing and air baths are used extensively in oriental medicine. When your grandma noticed you were feeling down in the dumps and she told you to go take a “walk in the park in the sunshine”, was she just a foolish old woman or does it really make you feel better? So many of us are taking antidepressants these days that you wonder if our ancestors sat around depressed all the time or whether they had other methods of dealing with the blues?
If you do your activity in an enjoyable setting where your mind is engaged as well, then you are sure to have an enjoyable experience. Probably the best exercise you can do is the type that you enjoy. Try lots of different kinds until you find something you have fun doing.
The most enjoyable way to play T’ai Chi is outside in the fresh air. Every year we have a contest among students to see who can play T’ai Chi in the most exotic location. We had a student play T’ai Chi on the white cliffs of Dover … another on the arctic circle. My wife, Jacqui and I, took a trip to Hawaii and got to play T’ai Chi inside the crater of the active volcano Mount Kilauea. Playing T’ai Chi on the beach one morning, we saw a group of dolphins come toward the beach. In China, they say that when your T’ai Chi is good animals will approach. I do not know how good our T’ai Chi was because when we saw the dolphins we jumped in the water and went swimming with them. Without noticing it, I ended up exercising harder than I had in a very long time. Made me wonder if that was how our ancestors survived without owning a thighmaster. Sound like fun? It was, but you do not even have to leave the beautiful scenery in Colorado. We met people in Hawaii who wanted to come to Colorado on vacation.
Living in Colorado we are extremely lucky. We have so much choice. Choose different settings, choose different parks or places you have never been before (just make sure it’s a safe neighborhood). Go out and make exercise an adventure. Just be sure and smell the roses.
Advice From Anne Frank
This spring take a bit of advice from someone who was involuntarily cooped up. After years of hiding from the Nazis, Ann Frank wrote in her diary on February 23, 1944, “the best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be a comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.” So right now turn off the computer and go on outside and play!