The great outdoors. There is nothing quite like it, especially being among nature’s greenery. It does wonders for the mind and body. I have written often about the health benefits of the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” First introduced in 1982, the act of taking in the forest through one’s senses — sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch — can generate a profound sense of well-being. Much of the research from Japan suggests that phytoncides, the organic compounds released by trees, may partly explain the health-boosting properties of forest bathing.
The idea that being out in the fresh air is doing something good for both your brain and sense of well-being is not just my opinion. It is also a conclusion of a recent study conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, one of the largest hospitals in Europe and a leader in research and medical treatment.
“During the (COVID) pandemic, walks became a popular and regular pastime,” notes a recent report in Science Daily. “A neuroscientific study suggests that this habit has a good effect not only on our general well-being but also on our brain structure. It shows that the human brain benefits from even short stays outdoors. Until now, it was assumed that environments affect us only over longer periods of time,” they write. The study findings recently appeared in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry.
“Our results show that our brain structure and mood improve when we spend time outdoors. This most likely also affects concentration, working memory, and the psyche as a whole,” says Simone Kuhn, lead author of the study and head of the Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. It is believed that they also provide neuroscientific support for prescribing a walk in the fresh air as part of the mental disorder therapy.
But all is not as it should be today in the great American outdoors. Though the fall season is officially upon us, it sure does not feel like it in those parts of the country still in the grips of an intense heat wave.
Calls for “extreme heat” have worked their way into far too many of the country’s weather forecasts, and it appears we are not doing a very good job of adjusting to the threats these extreme temperatures pose to public health. When these extreme temperatures are combined with “poor air quality,” the health threats are worsened. When we hear reports of extreme heat as well as poor air quality, we need to take the threat such a double whammy poses to our health as the serious threat it is. Combined with heat, smog gets worse. People don’t always heed the warnings.
As outlined in a current post on The Conversation, researchers at the Population and Public Health Sciences department of the University of Southern California recently examined more than 1.5 million deaths from 2014 to 2020 registered in California, a state long prone to summer heat waves as well as air pollution from wildfires. They found that the number of deaths rose both on hot days and on days with high levels of fine particulate air pollution. It was reported that the risk of death on those extra-hot and polluted days could be about three times greater than the effect of either high heat or high air pollution alone. The more extreme the temperatures and pollution, the higher the risk. Deaths spike when both risks are high. It is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges us to pay attention to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index external icon when planning outdoor activities and to track extreme heat in your area.
Extreme heat is not just a West Coast problem. “Temperatures above the threshold of the National Weather Service’s ‘extreme danger’ category, when the heat index is more than 125 degrees Fahrenheit, is expected to affect about 8 million people in the US this year,” reports CNN. According to data from the EPA, and reported by USA Today, “Although there has been long-term improvement in the nation’s air quality thanks to decades of work to reduce emissions, it has been offset in part by hotter, drier conditions,” the report adds.
The USC research also showed that “the effects of particulate air pollution and heat extremes were larger when high nighttime temperature and pollution occurred together. High nighttime temperatures can interfere with normal sleep and potentially contribute to chronic health conditions such as heart disease and obesity, and disrupt how the body regulates temperature,” says The Conversation.
Says USA Today, according to an annual report released by the American Lung Association, “there were more days with ‘very unhealthy’ and ‘hazardous’ air quality than ever before in the two-decade history of the report … Despite some improvements in air quality over the past 50 years, about 137 million Americans continue to live with unhealthy levels of air pollution, the report found.”
“Ozone in the air we breathe can harm our health, especially on hot sunny days when ozone can reach unhealthy levels. Even relatively low levels of ozone can cause health effects,” says the EPA website. “Children are at greatest risk from exposure to ozone because their lungs are still developing and they are more likely to be active outdoors when ozone levels are high, which increases their exposure.” On days like these, staying well hydrated and keeping cool become essential.
“(Dehydration) can happen fast,” Pasadena Fire Chief Chad Augustin recently explained to CBS News. “We have people who go out for a hike. They don’t bring any water or nourishment and then the hikes take longer than predicted … Some people aren’t aware of how much they need to drink, especially young children.”
So, let’s all take care when we are out there.