Karl Neuman, M.D.
Do your kids a favor. Pry them away from their TV, video games, computers, and smart phones – forcefully, if necessary. Ignore their yelling and sarcasm. Then kick them out the door – literally, if need be. If they threaten to report you to child welfare services, inform them that merely being outdoors is the current cure-all for all that ails them and the preventative for virtually all that may ail them in the future.
While cure-alls come and go, this one is backed by impressive credentials –the Harvard Health Letter, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), for example. Their messages: “Letting your children ‘go alfresco’ helps them grow up healthy.” “Children’s‘dis-connect’ with the outdoors is an important reason that so many children have physical and mental issues.” “Today’s children suffer from ‘nature-deficit’ syndrome.”
Do impressive credentials always get it right?Not necessarily. In fact, much of the support for equating the outdoors with heaven is not based on traditional evidence-based research. But the philosophy is worth listening to – while remembering that we tend to exuberantly embrace simple, safe and free cure–alls that promise better health for our children, especially cure-alls that have virtually no known downside. Only time and research may find kinks in the current adulation of alfresco.
Today’s children are “screen bound.” “The nature of childhood has changed, and there isn’t much nature in it,” says one guru. “Screen time” is higher than ever. Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago. On average, preschool children spend 32 hours a week with screen media. The AAP recommends that kids under age 2 years have no screen time, and those older than 2 watch 1 to 2 hours a day, preferably quality programming.
The worst sedentary activity is TV watching.Children who spend their indoor time watching TV have higher blood pressures than those playing electronic games, on computers, or texting, according to the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. TV watching involves no movement on the part of the child and is often associated with eating, generally foods high in salt and calories.
Children are more active outdoors. While kids need not be outside to be active and being outside is no guarantee of activity, indoor living is associated with being sedentary. Time spent with electronic media is done mainly while sitting. The younger children start active outdoor recreational play, the more likely they will find ones they enjoy and will continue as adults.
“Green” outdoors is the best outdoors. Spending time surrounded by trees, grass and plants is superior to being amid buildings, concrete and artificial turf, with the wilderness the ultimate outdoors. Five minutes of green exercise a day results in improvements in self-esteem and mood. A window view of trees helps hospital patients recover faster than a view of brick walls.
Activity should be sufficiently intense to increase heart rates.Brisk walking, biking, or “running around,” for example, have beneficial effects on muscle strength and endurance, bone and cardiovascular health, and concentration, memory, and classroom behavior. Children with attention deficit disorders scored higher on tests of concentration after walking through natural surroundings than those walking through residential neighborhoods or downtown areas. Children living in greener neighborhoods maintain lower average body weight.
Some children need coaxing to enjoy the outdoors.Others take to it “naturally.” Parents should expose children to various activities, ones appropriate for their ages. Look for activities provided by schools, park departments and other neighborhood organizations. Structured play times and activity-friendly environments are conducive to enjoyment. Ideally, children should spend at least one hour a day outdoors.
Though less well studied, some researchers believe that “nature time” helps family bonding. “The natural world seems to invite and facilitate parent-child connection and sensitive interactions,” says a former advisor on children’s health to the White House. “What better way to escape the constant, interrupting beeping of modern life, than spending concentrated time with your child during a walk in the woods.”
Vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” is the vitamin presently in vogue. Itmayhave protective effects against future osteoporosis, cancer, depression, heart attacks, and stroke. Some kids have too little in their bodies. (It takes direct sunlight to activate the substances in the skin that produce vitamin D. Being in the shadow of a building with blue sky above is not sufficient.) Vitamin D can also be obtained from food and vitamin supplements.
Winter sunlight helps minimize being sad and having SAD. Sad (small letters) is having the “winter blues.” SAD (capital letters) stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, a more serious form of the winter blues. Sufferers have less energy, difficulty concentrating, become irritable more easily, need more sleep, and take longer to get up in the morning. In younger children, crankiness and crying spells may occur more often.
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