Advanced Medicine: A Prescription for Adventure

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 1, 2010 8

What adventures would ensue if we just opened the doors and let children out?

You’ve probably got one in the bathroom, bedroom or basement or perhaps tucked away in a closet. It’s that piece of exercise equipment, such as a treadmill or foldable “home gym,” that you thought would be the quickest route to a healthier you. Only now, it sees more action as a clothes hanger than it does as an aid to making you fitter.

I know you have one, because I do, too (my treadmill happens to be in an upstairs bathroom), and because lately doctors have noticed that most of us have some form of these devices and they aren’t doing us much good. One physician who was recently interviewed for an article in the Washington Post said that she’s heard anecdotally from many patients that while their BodyShaping Ab Blasters and Dura-Bands are gathering dust, it was the simple act of taking a walk that finally got them up and moving. So she began handing out “park prescriptions”: written orders that included the location of a local green space, the name of a specific trail and the exact mileage she wants her patients to cover.

Now doctors around the country are prescribing nature for their patients in order to prevent (or treat) a wide range of health problems, including heart disease, obesity and attention deficit disorder. Some even send people to wade across rivers or stroll on beaches.

I can’t help wondering, though, how much better we might feel if we upped those kinds of prescriptions from a daily dose of nature to a required amount of adventure.

Adventure: fighting muscular and mental attrition

A walk in nature lowered pulse rates and stress levels more than taking a walk on a city street. ©John T. Andrews

New studies are proving again and again that not only does nature give you the social and mental benefits of making you a nicer and happier person, partaking of it is physically good for you, too. A series of recent study results from Japan shows that taking a walk through the woods might protect you from the common cold and other viruses. It’s postulated that being exposed to phytoncides, aromatic oils with infection-fighting properties that certain trees emit, bestows immunity. In yet another Japanese study, it was found that participants had lower pulse rates and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after a short nature walk as opposed to taking a brief jaunt on a city street.

While getting a dose of nature may be as simple as stepping outside, there’s an extra element to having an adventure: most definitions of the word involve some variation of “accepting unknown risks”; “having a stirring experience” or “consenting to a wild and exciting undertaking.” If getting off the couch, going to a local park, and hitting the trails is a good first step, how much more could we improve our lives and health if we passed beyond the threshold of just experiencing nature outdoors to having an adventure in it? What if we now carried ourselves beyond the well-worn trails and frequently visited landmarks and iconic tourist stops? What if we could add to our good health not merely by the miles we walked and hours spent outdoors but by the number of unanticipated events we encountered and dealt with?

Perhaps some day in the future we’ll find that having an adventure fosters new synaptic connections that stave off Alzheimer’s. Or maybe we’ll discover that paddling an unknown sea not only enhances the strength of our arms but shortens our reaction time so much so that we suffer fewer bone breaks and hip fractures. Maybe we’ll learn that snorkeling in the Galápagos is the cure for migraines or hiking to the poles of the Earth strengthens the heart in more ways than one.

How much more would our health improve if we went beyond the well-worn trails? ©John T. Andrews

Adventure: good for adults and children

Of course, the new study results about the benefits of experiencing nature are not only relevant for the health of adults but for children, as well. A few years ago, the National Forum on Children and Nature—a group of mayors, professors, conservationists and business leaders—met in Washington, D.C., to discuss the disconnection between children and the outdoors. The conversation, inevitably, turned to statistics and numbers and the logistics of implementing budgeted programs. Some were looking for a “business model” to follow for introducing children to the natural world. Most saw the need for establishing other committees and conducting yet more research.

I wonder what would happen, though, if we, for once, forgot the business models, the organized after-school programs and trail guides and just opened the doors and let the kids out. Imagine the adventures that would ensue!

Here’s to yours, in whatever corner of the world you find them,

Candy

8 Comments »

  1. Kris November 10, 2010 at 9:16 am - Reply

    I loved this article! Having the parks, beach, and mountains nearby has made a world of difference. Even just knowing that they are there for you when you need and want them is so important. I’ve started taking a 10 to 15 minute walk in the middle of the day to reflect and calm myself while reflecting on the day. It’s just so important and I love that physicians are starting to prescribe the act of surrounding yourself with nature. Let’s start prescribing it for ourselves! Thanks for this fantastic article and information, Candy.

  2. NineQuietLessons November 3, 2010 at 11:30 am - Reply

    Spending time in nature can be refreshing, it’s true. It’s worth noting, I think, that part of the reason kids spend more time inside is not that they’re lazy, but that homework loads have increased dramatically along with time spent on after-school activities, and that some parents are paranoid about their kids being out and about.

  3. Andrew Jay November 3, 2010 at 9:01 am - Reply

    You bring up an interesting point about the many benefits of being outside for children. But, it’s not always as easy as opening the door and pointing the way out. Tossing the cell phones, I pods, computers and other electrical devices out first might do the trick.

  4. John H Gaukel November 3, 2010 at 8:43 am - Reply

    Walk! Walk! Walk! It’s one of the best exercises you can do and it doesn’t take much of a investment, in equipment, to do it. Where to walk? Well, you are never very far from a park, wildlife area, or state forest in Wisconsin. Most of them have well marked trails to walk. So get up, get out, get some exercise and fresh air and you will be healthier as a result.What more could you ask for?

  5. Chris Card Fuller November 2, 2010 at 10:49 am - Reply

    Here, here, I agree!

  6. Parisgirl November 2, 2010 at 10:23 am - Reply

    I heartily agree. In Europe, the pilgrimage route, Santiago de Compostela (Chemin de St. Jacques) has gained in popularity over the last fifteen to twenty years. A walk in the woods is a great idea – if any woods will be left in fifty years. In France you’ll find corn fields growing where hiking paths were marked out on maps. Each year, exurbia encroaches on forest land. Will it be too late before we realize that a walk in the woods is good for body and soul (and should be accessible to a nation’s citizens?)

  7. Mary November 2, 2010 at 10:08 am - Reply

    No question about it – Nature is indeed a terrific all-around prescription. I have always believed that one’s positive outlook frequently affects his or her physical health, and how can we take a walk in the woods without finding our soul soar?

  8. Catherine Khalar November 1, 2010 at 11:06 am - Reply

    Hello, we have been in touch before about a candlelight ski at the Brule River State Forest. I just read your article that you posted today. I like it! I also love the quote “What adventures would ensue if we just opened the doors and let children out? ©John T. Andrews” that you have posted under one of the pictures. I not only work for the Brule River State Forest, I also am an editor for our Brule River Sportsmen’s Club newsletter. I often try to get statements or quotes in the newsletters about getting children in the outdoors. I would love to put that quote into our newletter if you could direct me where to find it. Thank you for your time and interesting articles!
    Cathy Khalar

Leave A Response »