“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” — Robert Frost
Last weekend, my father and I took a trip to Hallettsville to do some maintenance at Camp Williams, a campground for youth development and leadership training. Rather than take the freeway, we decided to roll down the windows and take the long, winding road through small towns and coastal Texas.
For five hours we talked about life, my grandfather, faith and challenges we’re both facing. When not talking, we rested in comfortable silence admiring the beautiful Texas countryside. I wouldn’t have traded that experience for the world.
A growing body of evidence shows that spending time outdoors can improve overall health and even prolong your life. One study that spending 20 minutes outside can lower the stress hormone cortisol by 20 percent from baseline. The activity didn’t matter; rather, just the act of being outside improved people’s stress levels. It was unclear how long this benefit lasted, but researchers did see that the effect lasted a while and the benefits were cumulative.
Policymakers have been well aware of this fact, and recently the evidence has shown just how much good public green spaces offer the community. A review of almost 143 studies found that exposure to green spaces has been shown to reduce stress, improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and reduce risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke. They also lower the risk of preterm birth, type 2 diabetes and all-cause mortality. Additionally, individuals who participated in outdoor activities also reported feeling healthier compared to those who didn’t take time to get outside.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that while just spending time outdoors can improve your health, participating in outdoor sports and physical activities significantly improves all the benefits I mentioned before. There are numerous studies that have shown participation in sports or exercise outside help prevent diseases like vitamin D deficiency, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and nearsightedness in both youth and seniors. It’s nature’s 2 for 1 special. That’s just the physical benefits. I didn’t get to mention the mental and social benefits of community activities.
Our public park spaces are so important. They improve the overall health of those who utilize them. If you haven’t had time to explore some of Galveston County’s beautiful parks or beaches lately, try to find some time to get outdoors and reconnect with nature while the weather is nice and before tourist season begins. Take a brisk walk or play some outdoor games with a friend. Roll down your windows and take the scenic route instead of the freeway. Find a comfortable chair or park bench and read for an afternoon. Have a picnic date with your significant other. Go for a jog on the seawall (make sure to say hello if you see me doing the same.) Don’t forget your sunscreen and take time to get outside and enjoy nature. It will do both body and soul some good.
Dr. Samuel Mathis is an assistant professor in UTMB’s Family Medicine Dept.