One of the great joys of Wisconsin summer is that it is possible- indeed, desirable – to spend essentially all of one’s time outside. Hence one of our goals for the past week, when my 9-year old twin nieces were visiting from Florida (where the same cannot be said of summer), was to spend as much time as we could in the outdoors. Clean air, exercise, fresh food – perfect antidote to stress, right? Well, it turns out, recent studies have begun to provide an explanation for how it works.
- Researchers at Stanford found that walking in a quiet natural area produced an elevation in mood, and a decrease in blood flow to an area of the brain associated with brooding and depression, compared with walking in an urban area. Remaining unclear are how long the exposure needs to be (it was 90 minutes in this experiment), and which elements (quiet, greenness, odors, or a combination) are responsible for the effect. It certainly boosts the case for a wellness trail on the medical campus.
- Numerous studies have shown that moderate exercise leads to long term benefits in terms of stress reduction and improved mood. More recently, English researchers demonstrated that even a 30 minute walk at lunch time produces an immediate increase in energy level and decrease in stress.
- Some of the most provocative work is in the area of psychoneuroimmunology, which studies the interplay between the microbiome and mental health. Among the intriguing findings are that numerous molecules produced by gut bacteria are psychoactive, and that changes in the intestinal flora are associated with a variety of psychological features including mood, stress, and cognition.
They may not have known why, but our mothers were spot on when they told us to get the heck outside and play. On the other hand, right now we’re getting ready to go to State Fair. I’m not sure what cream puffs and deep-fried stick-based foods do to the microbiome, but it can’t be good. We may have to go for a very long walk in the woods to recover.