Seven Ways to Make Nature as Easy to Connect to at Work as the Internet

We can access any type of technology in the workplace in an instant. Online we can hit social media sites, check email and post pictures with ease. Why don’t we make it just as easy to incorporate nature into our work spaces? There are many motives for organizations to encourage this including  having healthier, more satisfied employees, as well as improving employee effectiveness on the job.

In the United States obesity is a major health issue that costs organizations millions in associated healthcare costs. Having green space near the workplace encourages exercise. Linked to this, The American Public Health Association (APHA) recently adopted a new policy statement focused on promoting healthy and active lifestyles by  encouraging land use decisions that prioritize access to natural areas and green spaces for residents of all ages, abilities and income levels. APHA calls on public health, medical and other health professionals to raise awareness among patients and the public at-large about the health benefits of spending time in nature and of nature-based play and recreation and encourages healthcare professionals to form partnerships with relevant stakeholders, such as parks departments, school districts and nature centers. The policy statement also calls for promoting natural landscaping. All of this points to the need for have more access to nature in all settings, particularly near the workplace where people spend a large part of their day.

Enjoying the "soft fascination" of beautiful fall leaves. Photo by Mark Ellison

Enjoying the “soft fascination” of beautiful fall leaves.
Photo by Mark Ellison

We need to make nature as easy to connect to at work as the internet.It really should not be that difficult, but we make it that way by designing cities without adequate green spaces, and work spaces that do not take into account the health of employees. Complicating the problem, we don’t adequately communicate how spending time in nature impacts health and well-being, and  people who have lived in urban settings most of their life may have little understanding of the abundant health benefits nature offers.

One way to incorporate nature into our busy lives is to find ways to experience its benefits in or near our workplace. Here are seven tips for experiencing nature at work.

1) Have plants in your work space: Having plants in your work space can help lower blood pressure and perceived levels of stress, improve focus, help clean the air, in addition to providing aesthetically pleasing elements to the space. If you work at a computer most of the day, having plants in the field of vision of your screen is key.

2) Sounds of nature: Noise is a big stress inducing factor in many workplaces. Being able to introduce nature sounds that are more relaxing can help to improve focus and reduce stress. One Square Inch, a sanctuary for silence at Olympic National Park provides a wonderful recording of nature to block out noise.

Residents of Abingdon and Damascus, Virginia use The Virginia Creeper Trail for "green exercise". The trail starts in downtown Abingdon and runs 34 miles through Damascus to Whitetop, Virginia. Photo by Mark Ellison

Residents of Abingdon and Damascus, Virginia use The Virginia Creeper Trail for “green exercise”. The trail starts in downtown Abingdon and runs 34 miles through Damascus to Whitetop, Virginia.
Photo by Mark Ellison

3) Have walking/hiking meetings or meet outside: Having walking or hiking meetings allows the opportunity to discuss important topics and get exercise simultaneously. Exercise also stimulates the brain and can aid in enhancing creativity if the exercise is in a green environment. Most of us sit entirely  too much, and walking meetings can also help us get 10,000 steps a day, the minimum recommended to maintain health. If walking/hiking meetings are not an option, have tables and chairs outside the office for meetings.

4) Pictures/artwork of nature: Ideally work spaces will have windows that offer natural light and views of nature. If this is not the case, use photos or artwork of nature to introduce nature to the setting. It could be pictures of a favorite spot you go to escape, a breathtaking sunset, or beautiful flowers. Nature pictures/paintings have been found to be relaxing. In contrast abstract art, particularly in healthcare settings for patients, has been found to be upsetting.

5)Take a break or lunch outside: If there is a park or greenway nearby this is a great escape to help reduce stress, get some vitamin D and breathe some fresh air. If parks or greenways are not available, bring your own portable chair and find a nice place to relax. If only for fifteen minutes this can help improve your mood and feelings of well-being.

6) Offer “on the clock” nature classes/activities: The National Outdoor Learning School (NOLS) offers employees one day a year “on the clock” to get outside and enjoy nature. This is often done in groups and leads to team building as well as improved health. Organizations can offer classes that introduce employees to the health benefits of time in nature, and then have experiential programs that get them out into it. The rewards are significant for the organization (improved employee health and effectiveness) as well as for the employees.

7) Have planning retreats at a botanical garden: Many botanical gardens also offer meetings spaces. These make ideal settings to get out of the office for planning, while also helping to reduce stress. Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens in Belmont, NC and Winghaven Gardens  in Charlotte are two that I have utilized with wonderful results.

Improving personal health as well as increasing effectiveness are going to be major priorities for organizations going forward. Google is an organization that gets this and offers numerous perks to improve employee health, well-being and satisfaction. Healthcare is moving to a model of “prevention” to reduce spiraling costs. Organizations continue to search for ways to do more with less. Creating healthier, more natural workplace environments will help to achieve both objectives.

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The Synergistic Benefits of Green Exercise and a Healthy Gut

We live in a society that is obese, sedentary, and obsessed with taking antibiotics at every turn. These factors have a devastating impact on our long term health, destroying our gut. Three recently published research studies help paint a more complete picture on this topic when viewed together. Eating natural foods, exercising, and being in nature provide a solid foundation for healthy living.

The Appalachian Trail near "The Scales" Virginia Photo by Mark Ellison

The Appalachian Trail near “The Scales” Virginia
Photo by Mark Ellison

Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Impact Your Health?

Much is being made recently of the bacteria in our gut. Can what is in our gut really have an impact on our health, and our waist line? According to a recent report on NPR, European researchers have found that the less diverse those microbes are, the more likely people are to gain weight, become obese, and develop risk factors for serious health problems. The research study was spearheaded by S. Dusko Erhlich of the National Institute for Agricultural Research in France and recently published in the journal Nature. Ehrlich and his colleagues conducted a detailed analysis of the microbes in the guts of  292 Danish people. There were 169 obese people in the group and 123 who were lean. Looking at only the obese people in the study scientists found the people with the least bacterial diversity were likelier than those with a greater variety of microbes to keep gaining weight during the nine years the researchers kept track. People who had less microbial diversity, regardless of weight, were more likely to have a variety of risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Those risk factors included insulin resistance and inflammation.

The findings of this study support the belief that eating a poor diet or taking excessive amounts of antibiotics may be associated with health problems, and may contribute to the obesity epidemic. The researchers also found evidence to support the role of diet.  When they put 49 French people who were overweight or obese on a low-calorie diet for six weeks, the variety of the volunteers’ intestinal microbes became much richer.

The researchers also identified eight species of bacteria that appeared to be missing among the people whose microbes were depleted, which could possibly be addressed by creating a probiotic that eliminates the deficiency.

This study provides significant support to the belief that we should eat healthy and limit our use of antibiotics.

Blueberries + Exercise = Polyphenol Rush to the Gut

A clinical trial including researcher Dr. Mary Ann Lila at the NC State University Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis, NC,  the Dole Nutrition Research Laboratory, Dr. David Nieman at the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab, and Rutgers University,  has revealed that exercise enhances the absorption of polyphenols, which are bioactive compounds found in fruits  and vegetables, particularly blueberries, that help lower blood pressure and blood glucose, reduce inflammation, and help fight off the damaging effects of free radicals. The research revealed that exercise (running in this study) increased the permeability of the colon, which allowed for greater absorption of polyphenol byproducts.The study involved the emerging field of metabolomics, and helped researchers determine that polyphenols are absorbed mostly by the colon, not the small intestine, as was previously thought. The study found that exercise increased gut permeability and helped the polyphenols get through the colon wall. Researchers also found that a participants in the study had a 14-hour afterburn effect from a combination of polyphenols and exercise, helping them burn fat while sleeping. Eating fruits and vegetables, particularly blueberries, and exercising, can have a dramatic impact on your health.

Hiking on the Appalachian Trail Photo by Mark Ellison

Hiking on the Appalachian Trail
Photo by Mark Ellison

The Colorado Diet: Get Outside & Eat Right

A recently published book  co-authored by Holly Wyatt, MD, associate director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado-Denver, State of Slim: Fix Your Metabolism and Drop 20 Pounds in 8 Weeks on the Colorado Diet, appears to provide some solutions to the issues identified by Erhlich and colleagues. Colorado has remained the leanest state in the country for the past decade, boasting an overall obesity rate of 21 percent, compared to 28% nationally. Wyatt has been studying for years the habits of the successful weight “losers” in the National Weight Control Registry, and by observing the healthy behaviors of Coloradans.  Wyatt emphasizes that anyone can benefit from the strategies suggested in this book, regardless of state.  Based on their study, Wyatt, and co-author Dr. James Hill, Director of the Anshutz Center, recommend six healthy habits for staying slim:

1) Obesity rates are linked to the number of steps taken in a day. The national average is 5,500 steps a day.The recommended number is 10,000 steps a day. Wear a pedometer to accurately count your steps. Get outside for a walk or a hike, or just walk around the office for a few minutes. Get out of your seat.

2) Eat quality food, staying away from processed foods. Focus on quality, not quantity.

3) Get outside and surround yourself with lean, active people. People in the same social networks tend to have similar body mass indices according to the authors.

4) Live your life consistent with what you want to achieve. Stay healthy to pursue what you are passionate about.

5) Keep an upbeat attitude. Research psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has shown that cultivating a positive mind-set can enhance relationships, improve work performance, reduce depression, and contribute to better health.

6) Savor the lifestyle of staying health. Enjoy it!

A Lifestyle Choice

These studies point to the critical importance of a healthy lifestyle which includes a balanced diet, lots of exercise, limited use of antibiotics, and a positive attitude. The presence of nature encourages us to get outside. Having a garden to grow some of our own food will prompt us to eat less processed foods. It is a lifestyle choice to exercise, eat healthy, and develop a positive attitude. When all these come into balance you will find that each encourages you to maintain the others so you can continue to pursue the life you are passionate about.

Does ‘green withdrawal’ influence our winter blues?

by Alan C. Logan, N.D., Guest Author

Cross Country Skiing on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Balsam Gap, North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

In 2005, on a cold, grey (and broadleaf-less) winter day in the Northeast, I posed an e-question to Dr. Frances Kuo, one of North America’s leading experts on landscape and human health. Dr. Kuo and her team had recently published the second of their studies on the positive links between green (vegetation-rich) play areas and ADHD symptom reduction in children. Given the overlap between ADHD and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and the seasonal symptoms of ADHD – e.g. prescriptions for ADHD medications among youth are close to 30% lower in spring/summer months – I asked Dr. Kuo if the loss of green during the winter months might at least make a contribution to the so-called winter blues. My own vantage point, as I typed the e-mail that day, was a window view to red brick and leafless trees – the red bricks in that view would be obscured and transformed to lush green when the broadleaf trees burst a month or two later. The obvious connections between sunlight and serotonin, winter loss of vitamin D and its influence on mood notwithstanding, could our ‘green withdrawal’ add to those known variables and drag us down just a bit more? Dr. Kuo graciously responded that her team had not investigated the seasonal aspects of green in relation to ADHD/SAD, but that my speculation made sense.

Since that 2005 exchange, the research on the beneficial effects of ‘green’ has grown leaps and bounds. Studies have validated the mood and cognitive benefits of spending time in nature – forests, arboretums, gardens, etc – objective measurements in the area of stress physiology and brain imaging have provided solid support to the subjective reports of nature’s benefits. Although there are many factors that could be responsible for nature’s health benefits (e.g. phytoncides secreted from trees have a positive effect on immune support) researchers have turned their attention to the color green itself. In a new study published in Environmental Science and Technology, a team from the University of Essex examined the way in which visual color influenced mood and perceived exertion during exercise. Specifically, they had healthy young adults (average age 20) exercise on a stationary bike while watching a large screen video of a cycle road ride through green-foliage-rich Shenandoah National Park. The “green” exercise condition was cycling while watching the unedited video, while in the “grey” and “red” condition the same video was digitally filtered to appear achromatic (grey) or slightly red (and obviously less green). Brightness, contrast and sharpness were uniform in all conditions. Perceived exertion was lower in the “green” exercise group, while the “red” group had higher scores of total mood disturbance and anger. Less perceived exertion with exercise is a key factor in desire to return for another bout of exercise or to continue on for a bit more. Motivation is at the very heart of transforming a sedentary to an active lifestyle. A separate 2012 study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has also shown that green facilitates creative performance, likely by influencing motivation. Green, it seems, really does mean go.    

Of course, the National Park Service reports that Shenandoah National Park is dominated by trees that are leafless in the winter. Therefore the scene that influenced mood and perception of physical exertion among cyclists would be very different during the winter months – one might say it would look a tad grey. And the question remains, how does this fit into our winter moods? In 2012 Dutch scientists reported that living in urban greyspace may be a motivating factor, at least for those that can afford it, to spend more holiday nights away from home. Although only a small percentage of those living in northern US states and Canada experience diagnosable SAD, approximately 1 out of 2 adults report a marked change in mood or energy during the winter months. Leafless trees and winter-browned grass are typically not the aesthetic gold standard, and given the bulk of research on community greenness and health, is it time to closely examine the seasonality of benefit?

Dr. Alan C. Logan is a naturopathic doctor, scientist, and independent researcher focusing on nutritional medicine and ecotherapy. He is currently invited faculty in the mind-body medicine courses in Harvard’s School of Continuing Medical Education. He is the co-author of the recently published book Your Brain on Nature, and author of The Brain Diet.