Nature Research in the News: Hiking Meetings & How Trees Impact Health

Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation (Nilofer Merchant, Harvard Business Review)

Nilofer Merchant writes recently in the Harvard Business Review that sitting is the smoking of our generation, it is literally killing us. She proposes that meetings should be held walking, or even hiking. This concept corresponds with the ECO-Human Resource Development framework I have developed, that being outside, particularly in nature, offers many advantages to the workplace.

We sit an average of 9.3 hours a day, compared to 7.7 hours of sleep. The most prevalent aspect of work is sitting. Merchant states, “this lack of physical activity is directly tied to 6% of the impact for heart diseases, 7% for type 2 diabetes, and 10% for breast cancer, or colon cancer. You might already know that the death rate associated with obesity in the US is now 35 million. But do you know what it is in relationship to Tobacco? Just 3.5 million.” She reports that an Australian study found that each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11%. The quality of our life and health is directly related to living an active lifestyle.

Merchant suggests that we have walking or hiking meetings instead of sitting in a conference room. Exercise helps stimulate the brain, hiking has been found to enhance creativity, and being outside just makes us feel good. It is time to move our meetings outside and experience the benefits for our health, productivity, as well as morale. We need a “take your work outside day”, a new take on the “mobile meeting”.

When Trees Die People Die (Lindsay Abrams, The Atlantic)

Many people associate quality of life with the presence of nature. It turns out that the amount of trees in your neighborhood does more than just lift your spirits, they help you live longer. Lindsay Abrams reports in a recent article in The Atlantic that the emerald ash borer destroyed over 100 million trees in Michigan starting in 2002. “The U.S. Forest Service looked at mortality rates in counties affected by the emerald ash borer, and they found increased mortality rates. Specifically, more people were dying of cardiovascular and lower respiratory tract illness — the first and third most common causes of death in the U.S. As the infestation took over in each of these places, the connection to poor health strengthened.”

Research studies have associated spending time in nature with reduced stress, increases in natural killer cells which help prevent the formation of tumors, and heightened  mental health. This study shows that as we loss trees, it impacts health. Maintaining trees in our communities should be at the top of our local, state and national policy agendas. The benefits of trees and nearby nature directly impact so many facets of human health and economic well-being.

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Spending Time in Nature is Central to the Merging Fields of Leadership and Neuroscience

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) recently identified the merging fields of leadership and neuroscience as the number one “big idea” in leadership development. Mariann Ruderman, senior fellow and research director states, “the connection between stress and brain function is one area of neuroscience that will change the landscape of leadership development.” Ruderman identifies the most immediate application of neuroscience is related to the idea of self-regulation. “If you can have greater control of your nervous system, you can control your responses. This can help in all sorts of leadership activities and is especially valuable in delicate or difficult situations.” CCL’s work in this area also includes collaborating with experts in positive psychology, mindfulness and meditation to learn more about how these practices impact the brain, and consequently leadership.

This aligns with the concept of “ECO-Human Resource Development (HRD)” that I presented at the recent Academy of Human Resource Development International Research Conference of the Americas in Denver, Colorado. ECO-HRD outlines how organizations can utilize the restorative benefits of nature for improved employee performance and health. Scientific research has shown that spending time in nature optimizes brain functioning in a number of ways including recovery of directed attention capacities as outlined by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory. When directed attention is fatigued, the ability to control or regulate responses is inhibited. However, spending time in nature heals this.  Spending time in nature also improves the ability to focus and problem solve; enhances creativity and the ability to develop novel ideas; and reduces stress. The escape nature provides from the stress and fatigue experienced at work creates an oasis for reflecting on decisions and actions, as well as the refinement of concepts.  The “cognitive quiet” that is so elusive in the modern world is easily obtainable in nature, facilitating a meditative state of mind.

Restorative nature experiences such as taking a hike, visiting a botanical garden, or finding a quiet place in the woods to sit and enjoy sights and sounds, improves cognitive health and reduces stress. Opportunities for micro-restorative experiences near the workplace include having greenways, nature areas, or even a quiet room with plants and other natural elements, that provide an escape. All of these examples can provide immediate health and performance benefits. Research has shown that as little as 30 minutes in nature can have a positive psychological impact.

Organizations that incorporate “ECO-Human Resource Development” initiatives encouraging employees to spend time in nature will reap a number of benefits, including employees with enhanced cognitive vitality, which will subsequently enable them to more fully utilize their leadership abilities.