Sunday, April 8, 2012

Go Take a Hike (for your health that is!)

We all know we should be exercising. We have all been told countless times that it is good for us to engage in a fitness routine; but perhaps the thought of running on a treadmill, like the proverbial hamster on a wheel, has all the appeal of watching paint dry. Or, maybe you feel you ARE that hamster on the wheel…morning after morning…watching the clock, waiting for your 30 minutes to finally be up so you can hop off and get on with your day. Well, allow me to inform you of how you can not only enhance your exercise regimen, but do it in a way that will stimulate your mind, strengthen your body and nourish your soul. It is time to take working out to the great outdoors.

Let’s talk about the benefits of exercise. You have been told it will help you burn calories and stay trim. This is true. I am sure that we have all seen the articles, headlines and news shows. Daily physical activity not only will help you maintain an ideal weight, it is vital to your health. Working out will help fend off heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and slow the aging process. Weight bearing exercises, such as walking, have been proven to help prevent osteoporosis. Studies have shown that regular exercise can help alleviate mild depression as well as antidepressants do. Exercise literally can extend and perhaps even save your life.

Hiking is an ideal exercise. The reasons are simple. It is fun, and it works. Based on research, a 150 pound person, walking at just 2 miles per hour, can burn 240 calories an hour. Add on a backpack and you are getting a terrific cardiovascular workout, while strengthening your muscles. These muscles are engaged much more than they would be while walking on a treadmill or street due to the uneven surface of trails. Add uphill climbs into the hike and you are really working those quads, glutes and abs. Hiking uphill is an incredible calorie blaster!

In addition to the physical benefits, you can also help keep your mind sharp with the addition of an activity such as birding or identifying plants and wildflowers. Studies have shown that engaging in intellectually stimulating activities can keep your brain functioning at a much sharper level. Why not try to engage your brain while you are at it? There is also an added bonus: the possibility of wildlife sightings, especially if you hike near dawn or dusk, which lends an air of excitement to your walk down the trail.

The final benefit of hiking is the sense of peace that nature brings. Connecting with the natural world is a way to retain your sanity, a way to forget, for a few hours, about the everyday stresses of life. Standing at the summit of a mountain, the edge of a wildflower filled meadow or the shoreline of a shimmering lake can fill you with a sense of awe and accomplishment. Not something you typically feel as you hop off the treadmill I bet!

It is simple to get started. As always, you should consult your physician before engaging in any new exercise program. You will need to find out what equipment is needed. Proper footwear and a backpack are essential, especially on longer or more rugged trails. Always have more water and food than you think you will need before you head out. Now, you just need to decide where to go!

The tri-state area is filled with state parks, preserves and national wildlife refuges. Long Island abounds with nature preserves and parks. The Catskill, Adirondack and Shawangunk Mountains are all within a day’s drive of Long Island. Numerous other nature preserves and parks are scattered throughout the metro New York area. It is just a matter of doing some research. Hiking can be as easy as a simple ramble through a small preserve near your home, or as strenuous as climbing the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. There are trails to be found for every fitness level.

If you are apprehensive about venturing out on your own, there are plenty of ways to participate with like minded people. Hiking clubs such as the Adirondack and Appalachian Mountain Clubs offer hikes for every fitness level. Environmental and conservation organizations, such as The National Audubon Society, Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy offer group hikes, along with birding and botany walks. Check online and see what these clubs and organizations have to offer. Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon offers a wide array of outdoor activities, ranging from bird walks to hikes to paddling trips (another fun calorie blaster). Many of you are probably not even aware of the abundance of resources and natural areas that are within a short driving distance, perhaps even in your own neighborhood.

Hiking is truly a full body experience as well as outstanding workout. Your fitness level, intellectual health and even your emotional health can all benefit from taking a walk in the woods.

The next time someone says to you, “Go take a hike!” take them up on it! It just might prolong and enhance your life.

The summit of Crane Mountain, the Adirondacks, NY

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Nature and Kids, or Children Belong Outdoors!!!

I have a question for our members of a certain age: do you remember your childhood? Do you remember growing up before the invention of computers, video games and cell phones? When playing outside was the norm, not the exception? When we were not paranoid about germs, getting dirty or playing by ourselves outside, worried about the creepy stranger lurking around the corner? When you used your own imagination and creativity to come up with games and activities? 

I do. I remember the days when I was ushered out the door first thing in the morning, only returning home in time for dinner. I also remember the joy and wonder I felt spending the day roaming the woods behind my house, splashing in the creek and yes, talking to the animals. Those woods were my playground. There were vines to swing on, a pond to explore, rocks to collect and trees to climb. I felt a connection to the world around me, as well as a sense of peace knowing that as long as the water still flowed in the creek and the birds still sang in the trees, all was right with the world. Back then, no child wanted to stay inside and in fact, being sent to your room was the ultimate punishment!

Today’s children are growing up in a completely different world than you and I did, a world filled
with mesmerizing electronic devices. Parents plop their kids in front of the television for hours on end; a convenient and cheap babysitter. Kids are fixated on video games instead of reality. They have cell phones from a young age. They carry these phones with them everywhere, yet they don’t actually talk to one another, they text. Instead of basking in the sunlight, they are indoors, endlessly staring at a computer screen. Being sent to one’s room is no longer a punishment because that’s where all the fun is.

Today’s children are so electronically connected that they have become emotionally disconnected- from one another and from nature. They don’t venture outdoors and engage their senses. They no longer use their imaginations; they no longer have to think very hard when it comes to problem solving. Why should they? There is an app for everything!

Because of this lack of outdoor time, children are suffering from what has become known as nature-deficit disorder, the phrase coined by Richard Louv in his groundbreaking book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”. Children today are not just missing out on the fun we had as kids, their lack of a connection to the outdoors is affecting them in ways that are far more sinister. Childhood obesity is alarmingly on the rise, doubling in the last two decades, while cases of ADHD are increasing in number and the use of antidepressants in pediatric patients has risen sharply.

In addition to these frightening statistics, there are other more positive reasons why you should encourage your child to play outdoors. For example, children who have access to the outdoors are healthier, more focused and perform better in school. According to a March 2010 survey of nearly 2,000 educators by the National Wildlife Federation, “78 percent feel students who spend regular time in unstructured outdoor play are better able to concentrate, and 75 percent feel students who spend regular time outdoors are more creative and better problem solvers. Studies confirm access to nature in an educational setting has a positive impact on student focus and learning by improving attentiveness, test scores and performance.”

Other studies show that children who play outside have better self-esteem, enhanced brain development, are more creative and curious, and possess a sense of connectedness to the environment, as well as well as their communities. In addition, children who are not glued to electronic devices every spare minute of the day are better communicators, more poised and can relate to others on a much more compassionate level. The bottom line is that exposure to the outdoors is vital in the development of a healthy, smart and well rounded child.

What can we do about nature-deficit disorder? Raising a child really does take a village, and as parents juggle demanding careers with the needs of their children, it is vital that we provide options that will re-connect kids to a world that frankly, is a mystery to them. We need to instill in children that same sense of wonder, freedom and appreciation for nature that we experienced as children. We need to provide them with opportunities to explore, expand and engage.
If you are a parent, there is so much you can do. Bring your child to a park or preserve. Encourage them to turn off the screen and go outdoors and play. Take your child to an outdoor activity offered by a nature center or environmental organization. Remember your days of staying outside for hours on end and how much fun it was? Why not pass that gift down to your child? For their mental, physical and emotional health…children belong outdoors.

Stella Miller