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Gerald Winegrad: Feeling caged up during the coronavirus pandemic? Get outside!

Gerald Winegrad and his grandchildren tour the Bird Rookery Swamp in Immokalee, Florida while schools in that state are on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.They saw 20 alligators, lizards, a few snakes, Red-shouldered Hawks, magnificent Swallow-tailed Kites, many herons and egrets.
Gerald Winegrad and his grandchildren tour the Bird Rookery Swamp in Immokalee, Florida while schools in that state are on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.They saw 20 alligators, lizards, a few snakes, Red-shouldered Hawks, magnificent Swallow-tailed Kites, many herons and egrets. (Carol Swan / Capital Gazette)

The shutdown of much of our daily routines and isolation because of the coronavirus can cause both physical and mental health problems, some of which may be serious. For example, physical and social isolation can lead to depression and associated impacts.

I suggest a natural medicine with no prescription or purchase necessary—get outdoors and enjoy nature!

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Science is clear on the benefits of outdoor activities and exposure to natural settings whether walking, hiking, biking, or simply meditating in green spaces, urban parks, along shorelines or beaches, or in forests and meadows. One comprehensive report published in 2018 found that such exposure reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.

In this report, researchers examined 140 studies covering more than 290 million people in 20 countries. They concluded that people with higher levels of green space exposure are more likely to report good overall health.

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Astronaut Scott Kelly authored a March 21 New York Times article on dealing with coronavirus isolation: I Spent a Year in Space, and I Have Tips on Isolation to Share—Take it From Someone Who Couldn’t: Go Outside. He noted that: “Being stuck at home can be challenging. When I lived on the International Space Station for nearly a year, it wasn’t easy.” One of his tips from his confinement: Go outside and experience nature.

The astronaut found this connection was among the things he missed most while in space and started “to crave nature — the color green, the smell of fresh dirt, and the feel of warm sun on my face….My colleagues liked to play a recording of Earth sounds, like birds and rustling trees, and even mosquitoes, over and over. It brought me back to earth….For an astronaut, going outside is a dangerous undertaking that requires days of preparation, so I appreciate that in our current predicament, I can step outside any time I want for a walk or a hike — no spacesuit needed. Research has shown that spending time in nature is beneficial for our mental and physical health, as is exercise…getting moving once a day should be part of your quarantine schedule (just stay at least six feet away from others).”

All of us need to get outdoors and recreate, including our children.

Even if you do not live in a neighborhood with green spaces, woodlands, waterfront, or hiking or biking trails, we are fortunate in Anne Arundel County and the City of Annapolis with many public green space options near our neighborhoods. To promote usage during the coronavirus crises,

County Executive Steuart Pittman has acted to waive all fees to regional parks. He wisely noted we should “Please get out to enjoy our parks, breathe some fresh air and stay healthy.” Of course, visitors should continue to follow prevention and social distancing guidelines to help stop the spread of coronavirus. Regional parks you may visit include Quiet Waters, Kinder Farm, Downs, Fort Smallwood and Jug Bay. Additionally, Beverly Triton, Mayo, Thomas Point, the B & A Trail, and Bacon Ridge Natural Area offer good walking trails.

While park visitor centers and playgrounds are closed, restroom facilities are available. Annapolis City parks also are open for public use, but the Pip Moyer Recreation Center, other indoor facilities, and athletic fields are closed.

Again, we all need to observe CDC recommended precautions, but don’t let these prevent you from spending time in nature to feel and be healthier and improve your long-term well-being.

A co-author of the 2018 study cited above notes that “forest bathing” is a very popular therapy in Japan with participants spending time in the forest either sitting, lying down, or just walking around. “Exposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas may also have benefits for the immune system and reduce inflammation. Much of the research from Japan suggests that phytoncides—organic compounds with antibacterial properties—released by trees could explain the health-boosting properties of forest bathing."

Another co-author noted "We often reach for medication when we're unwell but exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognized as both preventing and helping treat disease. Our study shows that the size of these benefits can be enough to have a meaningful clinical impact."

We are surrounded by the beauty of nature in Bay Country and can escape the coronavirus doldrums, even if briefly, by getting outdoors and seeing the Greatest Show on Earth. Spring is here, the Ospreys have returned, bird calls are ringing out with mating messages, and flowers and other plants are starting to show off their beauty. Escape your electronic devices and leave them at home while connecting with the wonders of our natural world. More than ever, we need Mother Nature’s therapeutic nurturing.

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