These are strange and frightening times for all of us. “Social Distancing” is a household term and has become one important way we can protect ourselves and others, as well as help reduce the burden on our health care system, both right now and in the near future.
The search for some degree of normalcy is also on the minds and in the hearts of most people I have talked to. And, a theme has emerged as I talk with others about what they are giving up and what they are holding onto or even seeking out more fervently as the days become crazier. A common sanctuary for many is the outdoors.
Turns out those instincts are right on target.
A recent article from Runner’s World (www.runnersworld.com) included interviews with David Nieman, Dr.PH., a professor at Appalachian State University and Brian Labus, Ph.D., MPH from the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. They point out that being outside is not only OK, but encouraged. I know some of you will disagree with this. I respect a different opinion on this topic as we all navigate uncharted waters. And, I also want to add my voice to those advocating for getting outside. I see it as essential to our mental and physical health. And, I believe it can be done in very low impact ways, such as walking in your neighborhood or even driving, alone or with the person with whom you share living space, to a local park or trail where you can stay distant from others.
Of course, if you’re feeling sick, then staying indoors (or at least on your own deck or patio!) is a better idea. But, even if you feel fine, it’s important to act as if you are infected and keep a healthy physical distance from others who are sharing outdoor spaces with you.
Done with respect and care, being outside but not around large groups is an excellent way to access some “you time”. And, both stress reduction and physical movement have a positive effect on your immunity. That’s a powerful combination!
And, there is one more thing you may not have considered.
Nature itself offers a significant boost to immunity. Just being in nature has an enormously positive effect on natural killer immune cells, also known as NK cells. In 2007, Qing Li, a researcher at the Nippon Medical School, published one of the earliest studies to show a separate effect of just being in nature. He and his colleagues were able to show that being in the forest, apart from other factors such as amount of physical activity or time away from work, leads to significant increases in NK levels.
And, the increase was amazing, not just statistically significant. Of the 12 subjects in that original study, 11 showed increases in NK levels of around 50%! Not only that, but one full month later, even though the NK levels dropped, the increases were still significantly higher than baseline.
The subjects in the study spent a great deal of time outdoors; about 6 hours over the course of a couple of days. However, Li found similar results using just a day trip to a local park. The spike in NK activity was still significant. And, like the previous study, the results lasted. A full week after the day trip to the park, NK activity was still elevated.
So, whether you’re an urban dweller and seek out a quiet pathway in your local park, live in a suburban neighborhood and take solace in your own backyard, or you can get to a local trailhead, make it a point to get outdoors and stay connected to what heals us.
Be well, and stay safe y’all.
Li Q, Morimoto K, Nakadai A, Inagaki H, Katsumata M, Shimizu T, et al. Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol.2007;20:3–8
Li Q et al. A day trip to a forest park increases human natural killer activity and the expression of anti-cancer proteins in male subjects. J BiolRegulHomeostAgents 2010;24(2):157-65
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