Getting outdoors to get healthy

This past weekend, I spent a few hours outside in the garden beds. I’m not a very good gardener.

I enjoy giving it my best attempt, though. Every spring, I look forward to being able to get outside and make the garden beds look fresh and colorful. I started vegetable seeds in the house a few weeks ago and soon I’ll be able to transfer those outside, as well.

I always feel good after a day digging in the garden. Being out in the sunshine really lifts my mood. Working in the soil seems almost meditative. I can momentarily suspend the concerns attached to my careers, the management of the household, and the multitude of requests for my time and energy. I can work for hours without thinking about taking a break. When I’m done for the day, I feel calmer, more at peace, and feel a sense of relaxed rejuvenation.

I started wondering, why does gardening feel so good, if I’m not really that good at it?

I started looking into it. Is it just the sunshine? Is it the sense of accomplishment that comes with tidying up and making something look nice?

It was fascinating to find information sharing research from the United Kingdom that suggests a friendly bacterium in soil works in the same fashion as antidepressants to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical transmitter that helps with many bodily functions but is most famously known for its contributions to a balanced mood. I’m not suggesting that as medical advice, but it is interesting to learn there may be deeper biochemical reasoning behind why it feels good to garden.

That goes right along with other studies being done on the health benefits of spending time in the outdoors. Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing, is now commonly prescribed in Japanese cultures as preventative health care and a first step in treating certain lifestyle ailments and disorders such as attention deficit disorder, high blood pressure, and mild depression. It is the practice of simply spending time in the forest atmosphere.

Growing up on a farm gave me plenty of opportunities to spend time in nature. But now that I live in town, work in an office, and run errands in my spare time, my outdoor time is not as abundant as I would like it to be.

These days, it seems easier to convince myself to stay inside and try to whittle down my workload than it is to convince myself to go for a hike. I need to reinstitute a better work-life balance into my schedule.

How about you?

If you knew that a 20 minute walk on a trail or a visit to a forest would boost your mood, potentially lower your blood pressure, and improve your concentration for the rest of the day, would you make time for it? How about digging in the dirt for 30 minutes? If we don’t have space for a garden outside, we may at least have space for a few container gardens near a window.

In Alpena, we are blessed with abundant outdoor greenspace, with our township and county parks and state forest land. We’re also blessed with a greener city than most, thanks to a higher-than-average per-capita ratio of public park land to people, which is one of our greatest physical assets.

That means a wide variety of options are available to get outdoors.

We live in a perfect area to absorb all the benefits of nature.

Mary Beth Stutzman’s “Inspiring A-Town” runs biweekly on Tuesdays. Follow Mary Beth on Twitter @mbstutz.