Tag Archives: Health

The Nature Cure

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Screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And nope, there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside whenever you can. And when you can’t, research has found, just looking at images of nature will help you to perform significantly better on cognitive tests and feel better.

In our December issue, Florence Williams travels to the deep woods of Japan, where researchers are backing up the surprising theory that nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression, beat back stress—and even prevent cancer.

The Outside RX: Temper Your Screen Time

What happens to a mind in constant motion? That’s a question we seem intent on answering, one laptop and DVR at a time. In a now famous, years-long study of employees at the Boston Consulting Group, led by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, 26 percent of participants admitted to sleeping with their smartphones within reach.

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The Outside RX: Get Dirty

As hunter-gatherers and then settled farmers, humans touched, breathed, swallowed, and co-evolved with a broad range of microbes, says Graham Rook, professor emeritus of medical microbiology at University College London. These bugs—from gut flora and probiotics to bacteria and parasites—came to play an important role in regulating our immune system. They became, Rook says, our “old friends.”

The Outside RX: Go Blue

Greening our lives is a good start, but we need to blue them, too. New research suggests that water may be a key element in the natural world for psychological well-being. When researchers in Exeter, England, showed a group of adults a series of 120 photos of urban and natural scenes both with water (rivers, lakes, oceans) and without, the subjects greatly preferred the images with water, even if those scenes also showed buildings and streets.

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The Outside RX: Train Naked

These days, it’s the rare outdoor athlete who isn’t plugged into something: heart-rate monitor, iPod, power meter, GPS unit…. The assumption is that these gadgets improve our performance or experience or both. But there’s good reason to question that.

The Outside RX: Find Your Rhythm

Human sleep-wake cycles are set mostly by the sun. Light levels filtered through the retina send messages to the pineal gland, which pumps out or dials back on melatonin, the hormone associated with sleep regulation. Without sufficient exposure, melatonin levels are disordered, and our body’s innate rhythms are thrown out of whack.

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The Outside RX: Take Five—Minutes or Days

Five minutes is all that’s required to achieve the minimum effective dose of nature immersion to raise your spirits. So says Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex, who synthesized the results of nearly a dozen studies for a comprehensive 2010 review of nature’s effects on the body.

Free Medicine

In a 2011 study of 128 college runners, researchers found that “surrounding greenness” was an indicator of better athletic performance. Other studies have shown that exercising in nature results in less fatigue, reduced anxiety, less hostility, more positive thoughts, and an overall feeling of invigoration. Read more on how research supports the therapeutic benefits of playing outside.

Outside Magazine / Photo Gallery / Published: October 13, 2015

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6 Ways to Harness the Power of Daydreaming

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By Sam Harrison

When painting landscapes, Matisse would sometimes pause to study his subject matter and reflect on it. His peaceful pausing would arouse his subconscious mind and he could return to his canvas with clearer, fresher perspective.

Pausing is a powerful part of the creative process, whether it’s watching a distant sunset, strolling a nearby park, or taking a long shower.

Our brains need time to reflect and recharge. The act of pausing facilitates creative cognition and brings about those “aha” and “eureka” solutions.

“Sometimes this happens when you didn’t even know you were thinking about the problem,” says Mark Beeman, a professor at Northwestern University’s cognitive neuroscience program. “It’s as if a light turns on and you suddenly see an answer to a problem that had stumped you.”

Here are six ways to use pausing for more potent creativity:

1. Space out.

There’s much talk these days about mindfulness, which emphasizes attentiveness to the present. Mindfulness has strong mental and physical values, especially for primary tasks such as reading. However, recent studies show that not allowing the mind to also frequently wander can hinder creativity.

“Mind wandering seems to be very useful for planning and creative thought,” said Dr. Jonathan Schooler, a researcher at the University of Santa Barbara in California’s department of psychological and brain sciences, during a CNN interview.

“It seems that allowing people an incubation period in which to let their mind wander really helps the creative process.”

2. Hide out.

Seventy percent of offices now have open floor plans. These open workspaces are conducive to interacting and collaborating, but disruptive to pausing and pondering.

If you work in an open office, stake out a possible hideaway, a place you can dash to now and then for a few quiet minutes. Maybe it’s an empty conference room or unused office. A restroom stall or unused basement. Any secret space you can scamper to when you need to space out.

After I mentioned hideaways during a talk to an in-house creative group, one designer showed me a folding chair he had stashed away in the far corner of the building’s air conditioning and electrical room. “It can be loud, but I can be alone,” he said.

3. Look up.

Next time you’re in an airport or coffee shop, check out people sitting around you–at least 75% will be looking down at smartphones or tablets. Just a few years ago, many of those same folks would have been gazing around or daydreaming. But the gravitational pull of screens now steals time from reflection and zoning out.

While few are likely to give up their devices, reminding yourself to occasionally pause and look up can help. Stare into space. Look out windows. Study ceilings. Leonardo encouraged his young followers to focus on random stains on walls. Maybe just close eyes and breathe. Ideas are in flight patterns around our brains, just waiting for clearance to land.

4. Walk around.

Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s most creative presidents, was a huge advocate of walking. “The object of walking is to relax the mind,” he said. “You should not permit yourself even to think when you walk.”

Walking provides a clear path for pausing. It’s a great way to free the mind, assuming our hands also remain free of cell phones and printed materials.

Author Robert MacFarlane describes walking as a full-body experience. “Mind and body function inseparably,” he says, “such that thought becomes both site-specific and motion-sensitive.”

And a persuasive endorsement for walking comes from poet Wallace Stevens, who wrote: “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”

5. Mulch down.

Pausing can be analogous to a fallow field–a calm, silent place of restoration, with imminent growth just below the surface.

“I am a compost heap,” writes author Ann Patchett in The Getaway Car, “and everything I interact with, every experience I’ve had, gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down…It’s from that rich, dark humus that ideas can start to grow.”

6. Write down.

Pausing is fruitless if you don’t capture what pops up. Keep a notebook or pad handy for fleeting insights and ideas. When ideas come to legendary singer and songwriter Neil Young, he stops whatever he’s doing and writes them down.

“Those ideas are a gift,” Young told interviewer Charlie Rose, “and you aren’t being respectful to the gift if you don’t pay attention and write it down.”

Fast Company / Dialed / Published: February 19, 2014
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How Sugar Affects the Brain

Sugar is crack. Seriously: How Oreos Work Like Cocaine / The Atlantic

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The Case Against Cars

Dense travel in a dense world makes sense.

By Derek Thompson

Here is a brilliant piece of data viz to show how public transit reduces congestion. I sort of can’t stop staring at it.
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If you do succeed in dragging your eyes away, read more about America’s evolving car habits at The Atlantic Cities and check out Jordan Weissmann on the decline of driving in the U.S. over the last few years.
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We continue to lead advanced economies in per-capita carbon emissions, 28 percent of which come from transportation. But even if the crunchy granola argument isn’t good enough to make you see the benefits of public transit, consider that trains, trams, buses, and the like reduces traffic congestion, which is good for the life satisfaction of everybody behind the wheel, since science shows long commutes make us unhappy.
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Commuting by public transit isn’t amenable to all lifestyles, particularly for families who live in the suburbs outside the tentacles of the public transit system. But for both the country and the biosphere, the benefits are obvious. .

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The Atlantic / Business / Published: November 18, 2013
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Bright Nights, Big Problems

Why we should turn off the lights and appreciate the dark.

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by Paul Bogard

We live immersed in artificial light.

Astronomers rate the darkness of our skies on a scale (the Bortle Scale) of 9 (brightest) to 1 (darkest). Most of us spend our lives in the radiance of levels 5 through 8, only rarely venturing into areas ranked 3 or darker. Because of the rapid growth of light pollution over recent decades, most Americans under 40 have never known real darkness. All over the globe our nights are growing brighter, and almost nowhere are they growing darker.

We are just beginning to learn the true cost of all this light. Studies increasingly link our overuse of light at night with health concerns such as sleep disorders, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Other studies report the damaging ecological consequences, the tremendous waste of energy, and even the decrease in safety and security. But the steady loss of darkness from our lives is not easily quantified, for like the similarly endangered qualities of solitude and quiet, the true value of darkness is often intangible.

Take a brilliantly starry sky. Since the beginning of time, a sky plush with stars was part of the common human experience. Everywhere on Earth, on most nights, our ancestors came face to face with the universe. This experience influenced their religious beliefs, mythologies, art—their very understanding of their place in creation. Today, because of light pollution, two-thirds of those in the United States and western Europe live where they cannot see the Milky Way, and 99 percent of us live under skies polluted by light.

For the tens of millions who live under a night sky showing 25 stars or fewer, it is nearly impossible to imagine a natural sky of some 2,500 individual stars backed by great swathes of uncountable billions. Our night sky continues to shape us, but now it is the absence of the universe around us that influences our religious beliefs, our myths, our impulse to create. We are being shaped by a diminished experience of darkness, and most of us don’t even know what we are missing.

Imagine the world without van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Chopin’s “Nocturnes,” Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Imagine the world without the astral myths of the Greeks and every other ancient and primitive civilization, without countless biblical stories that rely on darkness, without St. John of the Cross’s book Dark Night of the Soul. Imagine the world without the gathered inspiration of countless generations before us looking into the night sky and being filled with wonder, with questions, with desire to know and understand. Most of us have lost this opportunity to be awed at the sight, to feel similarly inspired—to create, to change our lives, to gain a greater understanding of our God.

Our Milky Way galaxy is home to several hundred billion stars, and the universe home to several hundred billion other galaxies. Because of light pollution we no longer have a nightly reminder of how small we are, nor of how large. A sky wiped clear of stars tempts us to inflate our importance, to imagine humanity as the center of all things. Face to face with the endless immensity of the universe, we have the chance to know humility. But we might also realize the true largeness of our living on this beautiful Earth, and realize that we have an enormous responsibility to care, that there is no other place to go, that home is here.

Night’s natural darkness can teach us about metaphorical darkness as well. Ancient cultures included in their hero myths an experience of the dark—the dark wood, the underworld—for to become fully human was to acknowledge darkness as part of life’s journey. It certainly is today—we often live in the darkness of not knowing, unable to see the future, with no crystal ball. Genuine faith isn’t about finding clarity, but rather living with doubt. Those who profess to have no doubt, to have all the answers, to believe theirs is the only truth—they ignore the reality of metaphorical darkness. All life on Earth evolved in both bright days and dark nights, and we need both for optimal health. This is as true for our spirit as for our body.

And what of beauty? “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread,” wrote John Muir, and darkness is rich with this intangible resource. Lighting designers in Paris understand that without darkness, there is no “city of light,” and work constantly to create their city’s atmospheric beauty by subtly mixing artificial light with darkness. And with night’s moonlit geographies, its scents of sage-infused desert rain and autumn fires, its pulsing cricket symphonies punctuated by a loon’s solo call on a northern lake, natural darkness offers endless beauties of its own.

Yet we live immersed in artificial light. Much of this lighting is wholly unnecessary, born of habit and lack of awareness. So let us become aware: Simply by shielding our existing lights we could significantly reduce their negative effects on our body, our mind, our soul. Artificial light at night is a miracle, a wonder, a quality that enriches our lives. But the same has always been true of darkness, and can be again.

National Geographic / Daily News / Environment / Published: July 19, 2013

 

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Nature Has A Formula That Tells Us When It’s Time To Die

by Robert Krulwich

We wax, we wane. It’s the dance of life.

Every living thing is a pulse. We quicken, then we fade. There is a deep beauty in this, but deeper down, inside every plant, every leaf, inside every living thing (us included) sits a secret.

Below the pulse, which you see here, elegantly captured by Shanghai photographer/designer Yunfan Tan, is a life/death cycle, a pattern that shows up in the teeniest of plants, (phytoplankton, algae, moss), also in the bigger plants, (shrubs, bushes, little trees) — and even in the biggest, the needle bearing giant sequoias.

Everything alive will eventually die, we know that, but now we can read the pattern and see death coming. We have recently learned its logic, which “You can put into mathematics,” says physicist Geoffrey West. It shows up with “extraordinary regularity,” not just in plants, but in all animals, from slugs to giraffes. Death, it seems, is intimately related to size.

Life is short for small creatures, longer in big ones. So algae die sooner than oak trees; elephants live longer than mayflies, but you know that. Here’s the surprise: There is a mathematical formula which says if you tell me how big something is, I can tell you — with some variation, but not a lot — how long it will live. This doesn’t apply to individuals, only to groups, to species. The formula is a simple quarter-power exercise: You take the mass of a plant or an animal, and its metabolic rate is equal to its mass taken to the three-fourths power. I’ll explain how this works down below, but the point is, this rule seems to govern all life.

A 2007 paper checked 700 different kinds of plants, and almost every time they applied the formula, it correctly predicted lifespan. “This is universal. It cuts across the design of organisms,” West says. “It applies to me, all mammals, and the trees sitting out there, even though we’re completely different designs.”

It’s hard to believe that creatures as different as jellyfish and cheetahs, daisies and bats, are governed by the same mathematical logic, but size seems to predict lifespan. The formula seems to be nature’s way to preserve larger creatures who need time to grow and prosper, and it not only operates in all living things, but even in the cells of living things. It tells animals for example, that there’s a universal limit to life, that though they come in different sizes, they have roughly a billion and a half heart beats; elephant hearts beat slowly, hummingbird hearts beat fast, but when your count is up, you are over. Plants pulse as well, moving nourishment through their veins. They obey the same commands of scale, and when the formula says “you’re done,” amazingly, the buttercup and the redwood tree obey. Why a specific mathematical formula should govern all of us, I don’t completely understand, but when the math says, “it’s time,” off we go …

 

NPR / Krulwich Wonders / Published: January 22, 2013
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How Doctors Die

by Ken Murray, MD

Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.

It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

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