As we continue to destroy the world’s natural systems we are beginning to recognize the rippling consequences on our own health. We spend much of our time confined, enclosed in vehicles, offices and schools, shuttled from one indoor activity to another – sometimes without even glancing up from a handheld screen. We panic at the thought loosing mobile phone coverage, spending less time than our parents did outside. Prisoners are entitled to at least an hour of fresh air a day under the UN rights for prisoners. The average Irish person gets less than this. There has been a fundamental shift away from nature to ‘videophilia’ – sedentary activities involving electronic media (Pergams & Zaradic, 2006; Lougheed, 2008). We have moved away from traditional outdoor activity. Our connection to nature is not a replaceable convenience, it is essential to our health, economic prosperity, quality of life, and social well-being. Within minutes of walking into a forest our heart rate comes down, our breathing slows and levels of cortisol (stress hormone) are reduced (Ulrich, 1991; Bowler et al., 2010; Mao et al., 2012).
We often reach for medication when we’re unwell, but exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognised as both preventing and helping to treat disease. Time spent in and around nature – gardens, parks, tree-lined streets, forested and agricultural lands is consistently linked to beneficial long-term health outcomes.. The diversity of conditions that benefit from interacting with nature is staggering – depression, diabetes, ADHD, cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal injuries, migraines, and respiratory disease. Neighbourhood greenness has been consistently tied to life expectancy and all-cause mortality. The less green a person’s surroundings, the higher their risk of illness, disease and premature death (Kuo, 2015). Roger Ulrich, Professor of Architecture at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, was one of the first to research whether recovering in a room with a window view of a natural setting might have restorative influences whilst recuperating in hospital. In 1984, Ulrich took advantage of a natural experiment created by a long hospital corridor. Half of the patients on this corridor had a view of a brick wall and half a view of trees. The patients facing the natural view improved more quickly and reported less pain than those facing the wall. They asked for fewer painkillers and complained of less complications like headaches or sickness (Ulrich, 1984, 1991)
Ireland is cold, wet, windy and miserable for 6 months of the year. Exercising in the cold and rain is hard, so much harder! The production of lactate (waste product) is higher for a given running speed at low temperatures, so it requires greater effort maintain a given pace. Even muscle contractions are less powerful leading to decreased efficiency (Doubt, 1991). Not only does the body feel the pain of the miserable Irish weather, so do running shoes. Cold temperatures considerably decrease the ability of running shoes to absorb shock, potentially increasing the risk of injury in their users, particularly those with a history of lower limb overuse injuries (Dib et al., 2005). So why bother, why not just exercise indoors and pound the treadmill. A treadmill set to a 1 per cent incline can accurately simulate the demands of outdoor running (Jones & Doust, 1996). However, running on a treadmill changes running technique, it’s not the same as running on land (Nigg et al., 1995; Mooses et al., 2015). Treadmill running changes the foot position on striking the belt, thereby changing the natural stride length and cadence of the runner potentially leading to injuries (Fellin et al., 2010; Sinclair et al., 2013). But there are far more overwhelming advantages to getting outside to exercise, even when the weather is awful. It is more enjoyable, when tested scored significantly higher on measures of enthusiasm, energy, pleasure and self-worth and lower on scores of anxiety, depression and fatigue after exercising outside. Most discussions about exercising outside concern the weather and the potential challenges it causes us. We have engineered our lives so that we rarely have to experience a pang of discomfort even when “exercising”. The appeal of the gym is undeniable — climate-controlled, convenient and predictable. These comfortable temperatures are killing the planet, robbing us of some of the best experiences and benefits of exercising in natural environments which may well be killing us.
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