This Autumn, I have become aware of the gift of beauty we are surrounded by as the trees burst into the colorful palette of crimson red, lime green yellow, sherbet orange. As I experience the beauty, I am reminded to stay present in the moment and appreciate the beauty that stands in front of me. It is so easy to drift off into thoughts of dread…uggh leaves to rake…cold weather coming…bare trees…etcetera. As it turns out, the Fall foliage show is a gift worthy of appreciation, so long as you can stay present in the moment and embrace the beauty that stands in front of you.
Time in nature can be restorative. In research that was carried out in Japan, the group of people was sent to visit the forest and urban environments and to view forest and urban landscapes randomly for 3 days. Four times a day researchers monitored their cortisol levels (stress hormone), blood pressure and heart rate. It turns out, that when participants were in forest environments, all measures were lower and subjectively, they reported feeling more comfortable, soothed and refreshed after viewing forest landscapes.
As it turns out, the experience of beauty is one that stimulates the medial orbito frontal cortex (MoFC) of your brain. The frontal cortex of your brain houses your highest thinking centers. This is also the part of your brain that is activated while eliciting the relaxation response (ie. meditation, yoga, MBSR, etc.). According to neurology research by Tomohiro Ishizu of University College London, the MoFC area is activated when experiencing beauty, both visual and musical, on functional MRI (which is an imaging modality that allows us to see areas of the brain that are activated in real time) . The more intense the perception of beauty, the more the activation of the area.
Putting this research together, and of course the research on the health optimizing benefits of mindfulness and exercise, save yourself some green by giving yourself a truly restorative “spa walk” outside to embrace the autumn beauty. Come back home and curl up with cozy afghan and a hot cup of spicy herbal tea and suddenly, the doom and gloom of the Winter to come might not seem so overwhelming.
Here are simple ways we can save our planet while promoting our own vitality and longevity. Taking these steps for better health will also contribute to conservation of nature on our beautiful planet.
#1 Go Vegan: Nutrition is one of the optimum ways we can save the planet while improving our health. As a physician, the most interesting field for me to see evolve is the field of nutrition. Once thought to have no bearing on health by the field of medicine, doctors now agree that a healthy diet is one of the most important things you can do for promoting health and wellness. The healthiest diet for prevention of chronic disease and for longevity is a vegan diet and the silver lining is that it is also beneficial for the planet. Eating lower on the food chain leads to more efficient energy use, greater diversity of plants and animals, and reduced pollution of our water from nitrogenous animal waste. In addition, a plant based diet provides us with the whole foods and nutrient balance that our bodies have evolved to thrive on. Ecosystems benefit from diversity, and as it turns out, so does the ecosystem of bacteria that exists in your own body so be sure to eat a diet rich and varied in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. To learn more, check out the documentary Forks over Knives, or pick up the new book on making the transition to a plant based diet. Want to do one better? Go organic! Check out the dirty dozen list from the Environmental Working Group to find out which organic fruits will give you the best bang for your buck related to pesticide reduction. Have access to a community garden? SAVE THE BEES and GROW YOUR OWN VEGGIES! Sign the petition to promote vegetable gardens everywhere.
#2 Get into Nature: The benefits of getting into nature are far reaching. For one, you are likely to be exercising which is the other most important thing doctors recommend you do for your health. Live in a city? no problem, hit the park, green space of any kind will still give you the benefits. If you have access to a community garden, you’re loving it, not only are you benefitting from digging in the soil, you will also be providing food for dying bee and butterfly populations as well as improving the nutrient content of your vegetables. Heart rate variability, which is an indicator of heart health and balance of the parasympathetic and sympthetic nervous systems, increases when you are in nature. Preliminary studies have shown that “earthing”, basically walking barefoot on dirt, leads to positive physiologic changes. (Just watch out if you live in an area with pin worms). Hate bugs? …try a lemon eucalyptus based bug spray, recommended by the CDC to prevent tick and mosquito borne disease, and don’t forget the sunscreen! Check out the free database on Skindeep.org for non-toxic sunscreen options. Want to become more involved in conservation itself? Check out The Nature Conservancy volunteer activities in your area.
#3 Mindful Awareness and Meditation: Living mindfully allows us to separate from habitual thinking and behaviors. All too often we function on autopilot, allowing automatic behaviors and primal feelings to drive our actions and behaviors. Being mindful, living true to our core values and making conscious choices about how we spend our money, our time and our energy can help us to make important health changes like the ones I mention here. It can also make us more compassionate which is probably the most important value to have in our work protecting the planet. If you haven’t jumped on the meditation band wagon yet, or still think it is not something you are capable of in our non-stop stimulating culture, it might be easier than you think. I recommend the Jon Kabat Zinn book Full Catastrophe Living or one of his youtube videos as an introduction to mindfulness and meditation. You can also check out free guided meditations from UCLA’s Semel Institute.
#4: Bike! As much and as often as possible. If you follow this blog you have seen the “carternative” my husband has created to cart us around town. This contraption has improved our quality of life ENORMOUSLY. We don’t have to look for parking, we save on gas and parking tickets, and we usually get where we are going faster, or as fast as in a car. This is especially true for urban environments. Any time you bike instead of turning on your car, you are reducing carbon emissions, not to mention reducing oil consumption while exercising your body and calming your mind. Don’t want to arrive at work all sweaty? Consider an electric assist on your bike. Check out this blog that covers bikes as transportation as well.
#5: Shop Less: Excess consumption and a BUY BUY BUY culture contributes greatly to carbon emissions, global warming and landfill waste. Shopping less is healthy for your wallet as well as your mental health. A very interesting study published in the Chicago Journals by Rik Pieters found that materialism and shopping lead to loneliness which in turn led to more shopping. Still believe in retail therapy? Try consignment stores and thrift shops instead. They are a great way to reduce waste while benefiting others, find a Goodwill or Salvation Army near you. Studies show that giving to others can makes you happier, particularly if you give directly to someone you know so there is added incentive to simplifying and cleaning out those closets. Having willpower difficulties in curbing that shopping habit? Try the book Willpower Instinct here to learn more about how you can curb cravings and increase your willpower.
If you are interested in implementing some of the changes I mention here, remember, persistence AND positivity pay off! Take time to observe how you can be successful at making the changes and always prepare for what could go wrong and sabotage your success ahead of time. Finally, be sure to focus on the rewards, there are plenty of silver linings with these changes.
More and more these days I realize that what is good for our planet is good for our health. I think bikes are the most perfect example of this. Not only are they one of the most ingenious and beautiful machines ever made, they are also equalizers, bringing opportunities for transportation available to poor and rich alike. Most importantly if you hop on one on your way to work, for example tomorrow for DC’s “Bike to Work Day”, you are not only getting your work out done first thing, you are boosting your metabolism. Did you know that you are burning calories even after you stop exercising, leading to a fully guilt free day? Sounds like a good excuse for a latte, with an “I’ll take the whole milk”!
And who can beat the feeling of the momentum on the bike. You just can’t help but be mindfully aware of the wind blowing through your locks, au plein aire, lest you crash into a tree. The benefits of mindfulness are lasting too…in a resilience building sort of way. So if you haven’t tried it, why not start tomorrow.
Check out the pit stops tomorrow here. Be sure to register for a free T-shirt!
I am so grateful for Spring’s finally undeniable arrival in the Washington DC area as I gaze upon one of my favorite “blossomplosions” of the year, the spring blooming Magnolia trees. The National Arboretum has a collection that allows the viewer to appreciate their gloriousness within an uninterrupted experience of nature.
Surrounded by walls of magnolias, drenched in a subtle floral fragrance, with sounds of wood peckers and volleying calls of nearby song birds singing their songs of Spring, I am transported instantly into a world of beauty and, in my son’s words, “a land of magical trees”. My breath becomes free and easy and a smile unravels on my face and permeates through my being. Ahhhh, SPRING!
I love this image. The flowers are presented so elegantly, like wine goblets arranging themselves as if to say, drink from me, there is plenty go around. I fully expect to tip one into my mouth and taste the sweetest wine I have ever enjoyed in the most beautiful surroundings.
Nature is my castle.
In relation to health, I am reminded of the work written by neuroscientist and physician Esther Sternberg, MD who studies the beneficial effects that healing spaces can have on our health and immune systems. She writes that healing spaces can more easily allow us to enter a state of mindfulness and calm which optimizes our body’s ability to heal. See her speak here, or her TEDx Talk here and find her book on the health benefits of healing spaces here:
Get inspired this Spring, allow yourself to be immersed in the beauty that surrounds us. After all, it’s good for you!