Fight COVID With COVID (Consider Outside Versus Inside Daily)
We are sick of COVID. The long winter ahead presents unprecedented challenges. We grow tired of thinking about getting sick, dying, reducing or eliminating income, and losing friends and family. We anxiously wait for the new abnormal to equilibrate and are exhausted. COVID turns the world upside down, and the impact is systemic. Even if we are lucky enough to remain uninfected from the virus, COVID robs our mental health.15,19 Recently, scientists surveyed approximately 80,000 participants regarding pandemic-associated stress, and the findings were as expected. Researchers revealed high incidences of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, self-inflicted harm, and sleep disturbances — all related to the pandemic.5 Declines in mental health go hand-in-hand with declines in physical health, and a vicious cycle ensues.
How Can We Break the Cycle?
Implementing small positive changes improves mental and physical health. Spending time outside in contact with natural elements such as daylight and fresh air profoundly affects well-being.
A Little Bit of Sunshine Goes A Long Way!
Exposure to sunlight facilitates better sleep and reduces stress by normalizing circadian rhythms and melatonin levels. Sunlight fends off depression by increasing another hormone, serotonin, which improves mood, helps focus thoughts, and calms the mind. Natural light can ease seasonal affective disorder symptoms, which rise in the fall and winter months due to less available daylight.
Sunlight synthesizes vitamin D in our skin after 15 minutes of sun exposure. Vitamin D modulates and strengthens our immune system and appears to protect the lungs.15 The beneficial effects of vitamin D include reducing the severity of COVID-related symptoms attributed to better inflammatory responses.13 Scientists found that regular vitamin D supplementation up to 2000 iU/day is safe and protects against respiratory tract infections — especially in people who are vitamin D deficient.12 In winter, limited sunlight, combined with tighter restrictions, forces us to spend more time in isolation. Vitamin D plays a role and builds resistance. Currently, scientists all over the world are actively investigating vitamin D for COVID–related outcomes.6,12
Fresh Air — Trees Mitigate Air Pollution and Emit Bioactive Volatile Organic Compounds!
Who knew? Not me…. Trees mitigate air pollution by intercepting particulate matter on plant surfaces and boost the human immune system by emitting bioactive compounds. Multiple studies demonstrate inhaling volatile organic compounds from trees contributes to health benefits.1,2,7,11In fact, scientists report that Southern Italians experience lower COVID deaths because they are frequently exposed to volatile organic compounds emitted from evergreen forests and plants.16
Nature + Physical Activity = Better Protection
The benefits of nature intensify when physical activity is added to the mix. Unlike exercising indoors, hikers report that being on the trail doesn't feel like working out.18 Outdoor physical activity appears incidental to other perks such as sightseeing, socializing, and experiencing nature. Exercising outside produces more incredible health benefits when compared with the same exercise inside,8 and it burns more calories because outdoor exercisers spend more time enjoying nature.20
Restore Mental and Emotional Health
Natural environments improve focus and mental health.9,10Exercising in nature facilitates revitalization and relaxation while decreasing feelings of anger and depression — the same exercise indoors does not have this effect.18 Natural features can heal cases of emotional depression14 and minimize feelings of hopelessness, depression, and self-harming thoughts.17 Individuals with superior connectivity to nature express enhanced mindfulness and psychological well-being.21
Making Connections (While Social Distancing)
Outdoor activities shared with families, friends, and pets increase family bonding from social interactions. Family-life satisfaction improves when spending time together outdoors, with a greater sense of connection to community.3 Children engaged in outdoor activities show advanced motor function and are sick less often.4
Benefits Are Interconnected and Synergistic
Typical outdoor activities — walking, hiking, jogging, and biking — are always available and fantastic options. However, below I present three creative, low-cost activities for the whole family that stimulate your mind and spirit, resulting in improved well-being while social distancing.
1. Disc Golf is a sport where players throw discs (frisbees) at an object or basket, typically in a park or wooded setting. The only gear required is one disc ($5–$20), with options available at disc golf shops or used sports stores worldwide. The majority of disc golf courses are free to the public; the few that are pay-to-play cost $3–10/day. Find a course near you!
Disc Golf is easy to play and involves walking and throwing a disc at a target. There is only one rule — have fun! Of course, there are more rules if you get competitive, but getting started is as easy as walking in the park.
As you walk and throw discs, absorb the benefits of nature with your thoughts while connecting to the beauty around you. There is something very Zen about this sport. You are playing against the course and against yourself. Every throw is an extension of you; if you are having a bad day for whatever reason, you will see it in the execution of your shot.
Disc golf is played outdoors, making social distancing effortless. You can throw discs alone or with others, such as close friends or family. The opportunity for differing challenges, distances, and scenery is perfect for people of any age.
It is suitable for many activity levels — enjoy it as a leisure stroll or a strenuous activity (I've seen people throw, then run to their disc for a high-intensity cardio workout). In a typical 18-hole round, I walk an average of 3–4 miles. You can always increase your distance, speed, or add elevation for more difficulty. Depending on the course, elevation differences may require hiking up and down steep gradients. Flexibility is necessary, as some shots are awkward, and balance and stamina are a must. Throwing far and accurately requires technical skill, relying on good form and dictated by physics; this comes with practice only when you want to improve.
In the winter months, many clubs have "Glow Rounds" at night. Lights are available for your discs and the basket.
Disc Golf is a perfect outdoor activity to try as it is inexpensive, easy to do, and fun for all ages and abilities. It's a fantastic way to connect with family or friends while remaining 6 feet apart.
2. Snow Shoeing is an activity, like golf (or disc golf), that you can do at any age, with a little bit of preparation and planning. The cost is minimal. To get started, all you need are snowshoes, which can be rented to fit on your winter boots and a pair of hiking poles. Snowshoe kits are available for purchase, including poles, snowshoes, and a carrying case for as low as $70. It's easy to do and basically the same as walking. There are no rules, do what feels comfortable and best for you.
Enjoy nature and get away by walking to enjoy the trees and wildlife and listening to birds. Snowshoeing is a relaxing experience that nature lovers enjoy by allowing the mind to wander. Practice mindfulness and mediation as you focus your mind on the beautiful surroundings.
You can snowshoe alone or with others, such as close friends or family. The opportunity for varying challenges is perfect for people of any age and suitable for all activity levels. You can always increase your distance, speed or add elevation to get more of a strenuous workout.
Some groups plan activities for snowshoeing at night. In the U.S. Midwest, groups in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois have candlelight events or place luminaries along the trail, adding a magical ambiance to the sport.
Snowshoeing is sustainable and protects the environment. No gas or electricity is required resulting in no impact on natural habitats.
3. Geocaching is an outdoor activity experienced worldwide that uses GPS on your mobile device to hide and seek containers (geocaches or caches) with GPS coordinates and clues. It is inexpensive — simply use your smartphone and a free version of an available app. Cachers use recycled sealable bottles and containers to hide caches for other cachers to find. Geocaching takes place in a park or wooded setting for you to test your detective skills. Clues are provided on the app to guide you and can be quite creative and challenging to decipher. Experience the outdoors' solitude and beauty while solving puzzles that range from easy to difficult and appreciate the subtleties around you.
Most cachers participate alone, but if a friend tags along, you are outside, and social distancing is comfortable. You can even compare notes afterward. This activity is suitable for any physical activity level, including easy to moderate walking/hiking, depending on the terrain. Keep in mind, physical activity can be quite strenuous if desired, and the sport is inclusive from wheelchair accessible to requiring climbing or scuba gear.
Nighttime can also be fun, as night caches use reflective fire tacks to create a cache trail. Some experienced cachers describe their favorite caches as night caches.
Geocaching is a great addition to add a little mystery to your outdoor activities while doing some detective work.
Are you up to the challenge of fighting the mental fatigue related to COVID by COVID (Consider Outside Versus Inside Daily)? Small changes can have an enormous impact on your psychological and physical well-being. According to Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health psychologist, "The challenge is real, and there are no easy solutions. We have unknowns in every part of our lives. At the same time, a lot of the things we generally do to cope, the things we enjoy and that give our life meaning, have changed or been put off-limits."
Spending time outdoors is therapeutic. Exercising in nature improves well-being and is economical, convenient, stimulating, and FUN! Open your mind to new ideas, connections, and the extraordinary healing potential of your surroundings. What is your favorite outdoor activity to share with our readers?
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