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The Great Outdoors

-by Mary Lundgren, PT

One of the many things that I love about living in Iowa is the changing of our seasons. The variations in precipitation, temperature and color are amazing. As we watch the snow melt (sometimes not as soon as we would like), the fields turn from black to green and the bushes, trees and flowers seeming to burst into a rainbow of colors, one does feel that God has truly blessed us with one of the greatest shows on earth. But to enjoy this great show, we do need to gear up and head out doors. The benefits of getting outside to enjoy the show are not only limited to a chance to see and experience all the changes that occur with the changing of the seasons but also health benefits for young and old and all those in-between. Studies have found that we don’t spend enough time enjoying the “great outdoors”. The National Human Activity Pattern Survey funded by the EPA and published by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2001 found that the average American spends 90% of his or her life indoors and as we get older this percentage increases. No wonder we feel “cooped up” at times, it appears that we are. Being outdoors has been documented to improve both mental and physical health. The National Institute of Health has found that spending time in nature in any form can improve mental outlook. It provides for a de-stressing effect. When our body is “stressed” it responds by releasing a hormone called cortisol. During times of stress, cortisol ramps up the systems needed to manage the stress and temporarily shuts down those systems deemed not needed. Unfortunately, if we continue to be “stressed”, our body produces too much cortisol. If the levels remain high for too long it can have negative effects on the body that can include weight gain, sleep problems and increased risk for heart disease and diabetes. Being outdoors is one way to help lower our cortisol levels to those that are needed for optimum health and well-being. People who spend time outdoors also tend to be more creative, have fewer tendencies for sensory overload and experience less cognitive fatigue. You tend to have better concentration and ability to focus to the task at hand. Our mood tends to be more elevated with natural light. Short-term memory has been found to be improved and levels of alertness are increased. Being outdoors will also help in increasing the levels of vitamin D in your body. Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that is key in our body’s ability to absorb calcium and promote bone growth and bone health. If children have too little it can result in soft bones. In adults it can result in fragile misshapen bones. Vitamin D is often called the “sunshine vitamin” and is felt to offer protection against not only unhealthy bones but also heart disease and cancers of the breast, prostate and colon. Where we live, winter outside time does not allow us to produce the vitamin D needed from the sun but getting outdoors in the summer does. In fair skinned people, going outside in shorts and a tank top for less than 10 minutes at midday without sunscreen for a few times a week will help you to produce enough vitamin D to reap the benefits gained from having higher levels of Vitamin D in our body. People who are tanned or dark-skinned may need a little longer exposure. We still need to be mindful of too much sun and use sun protection such as hats and clothing and sunscreen if exposed to longer times of sun. If we spend more time outdoors and especially children, there is a tendency to be more active and to get more exercise. This leads to overall better health when we can get the benefits from being more active. Blood pressure, blood sugar and weight can be better controlled if we are more active. The combination of the natural sunlight and vitamin D can help to set our internal clocks and promote better sleep, a more restful sleep which leads to improved mental and physical health. The Orange City area offers many opportunities for you to experience and cash in on the benefits from being outdoors and to observe those changes that occur with each new season. During the warmer months, a visit to Windmill Park and Veteran’s Park will allow for a leisurely walk to enjoy flowers and trees and then hop on a swing to stimulate your balance system and improve your equilibrium. Kids can burn off some energy by working up a sweat winding their way through Kinderspeelland in a game of tag or hide ‘n seek. The Puddle Jumper Trail from Orange City to Alton, Iowa offers a 2 mile nature trail covered with crushed rock that gives you the opportunity to walk, bike or jog under a canopy of trees and lined with bushes for a portion of the trail and then a portion to enjoy the openness of farm fields and remnants of prairie. Take time to listen and identify the different species of birds that can be heard and sometimes seen. Access to the pond located on the campus of Orange City Area Health System can also be found on this trail. The 2 mile pathway around Landsmeer Golf Club offers the chance to walk, jog, bike or rollerblade on a cement pathway. Ponds located on the route offer a chance to enjoy the benefits of fishing. (That’s an article for my husband to write.) The Robert M Dunlop Wildlife Area and the Alton Roadside Park (which has the added bonus of a 9 hole Disc Golf Course) winds through the trees around Dunlop Pond and along the Floyd River to offer opportunities to fish, camp and picnic as well as play a round of golf. For a little more of a challenge check out the Floyd River Wildlife Complex B located south of Alton. It has a pond for fishing and also a path that winds around the pond and also down by the river. There are multiple stops along the way to rest, relax and enjoy what nature has to offer. So all in all, a daily dose of nature and the outdoors is good for the body and the soul. It is just what the physical therapist ordered. Let’s get outside and enjoy the benefits of the sun, the trees, the plants, the flowers and the increased activity. Enjoy the show!
Tenants and staff at Landsmeer Ridge Retirement Community plant veggies, herbs, and flowers in new raised garden beds.