Reducing Stress through the Benefits of Nature

As daylight hours dwindle and the air becomes crisper, thoughts and activities tend to focus less on the outdoors and more on the long winter months inside. And yet, the benefits of the outdoors and experiences with nature in reducing stress apply all year round.

Cortisol, an important stress hormone, has been mentioned a few times in this series on stress. Conditions associated with the pandemic, like decisions related to activities, continued cancellation of events, financial changes and health considerations are all potential sources of stress that can increase cortisol levels. Cortisol may cause our muscles to tense, impact our appetite, and decrease our concentration. Getting outdoors, it turns out, has been shown to reduce cortisol and stress for all ages!

  • A University of Michigan study found 20 minutes outdoors can drop cortisol levels in adults by over 20%.1
  • A review of research on college students discovered as little as 10 minutes in nature increased happiness and reduced both physical and mental stress.2
  • Studies on access to nature have repeatedly shown positive impacts for children related to physical activity, weight, attention, mental health and stress.3

How can you apply the stress reducing benefits of nature to you and your family as the seasons change? Most outdoor advocates insist there is “no bad weather, just bad clothes”, so start with planning ahead for what you might need in colder weather. Dig out hats, scarves, mittens, and coats now, so layers are available when temperatures shift. Next, be intentional about increasing your time outdoors. Take short walk breaks during the daylight hours, pausing to enjoy the changing autumn colors or the crisp scent of snow. Iowa is one of only a few states with a county conservation system – take advantage of this incredible resource! Many county conservation locations have outdoor programs all year where you can try new activities, like fall scavenger hunts or snowshoeing. If you need ideas to get children engaged outdoors, check out resources available through trusted sources such as Nature Explore and Project Wild.

Finding time to get outdoors, especially as the seasons change, can be a challenge, but the benefits related to stress are worth the effort!

  1. Hunter MR, Gillespie BW and Chen SY-P (2019) Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Front. Psychol. 10:722. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722
  2. Meredith GR, Rakow DA, Eldermire ERB, Madsen CG, Shelley SP and Sachs NA (2020) Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review. Front. Psychol. 10:2942. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02942
  3. Together in Nature: Pathways to a Stronger, Closer Family (2013) Children and Family Network. https://www.childrenandnature.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/FamilyBonding_En_20141.pdf

Written by Cindy Thompson, Human Sciences Specialist-Family Life

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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A Walk a Day Could Keep the Doctor Away

As Jody mentioned in her earlier blogs this month, February is focused around heart health. I like to focus on the habits I can do every day that help keep my heart healthy. Eating well and staying active are at the top of the list for me. 

Last week Jody touched on strength training and the importance of weight bearing activity to help strengthen muscles. Another easy way to exercise your heart and body is to go for a walk. Did you know that walking is the single most popular adult exercise in the country? Walking can be a great way to increase your heart rate while exercising your heart and lungs. 

The goal is to aim for 30-minutes of exercise 5 days a week. When I am running short on time, I will break my walk into short, brisk segments to get to that 30-minute goal. A few ways that I tend to break up my daily walk are to park further away from my destination when I am out running errands and to take short walks during my breaks. 

When I was pregnant, I gave myself a goal to walk for 30 minutes every day. I not only wanted to have a healthy pregnancy, but walking helped alleviate stress and gave me an energy boost- this was crucial in those last few months! Once my daughter was born, walking was the only tried and true way that I could soothe her. Having an October baby in Iowa took some flexibility on my part because it got cold outside fast. If the weather was too cold to take her outside, I would head to our local mall to get in my daily walk. Some of my fondest memories from childhood were going on walks with my mom. I hope that my daughter will cherish these daily walks as she gets older and begins to establish her own healthy habits.  

Check out the handout, walk your way to fitness, under the ‘move’ tab on our website that highlights helpful tips on what to wear for your walk and how to turn your basic daily stroll into a heart healthy workout.

Cheers to getting outside and strengthening your heart!

Katy Moscoso

Katy Moscoso

Katy Moscoso is a Program Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. As a new mom she is always on the lookout for easy, healthy recipes to prepare for her family.

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Staying Active when the Temperatures Drop

Taking a long walk and playing in the park on a beautiful day are pretty enjoyable ways to be active. The sad truth is that here in Iowa, we have several months out of each year when the weather outside is less than ideal. Lately, we have had days when the temperature doesn’t even reach zero degrees, brrrr! The frigid weather combined with fewer hours of sunlight can lead to all of us feeling an energy slump.

Despite this, adults need 150 minutes of physical activity per week for good health. So how do you make it work if you do not want to invest in a gym membership and it is so unpleasant outside? You can get moving indoors with very little equipment and still raise your heart rate and work your muscles. Here are some ideas for indoor workouts.

  • Schedule walking dates with friends. Walking is great exercise and doing it with a friend helps with accountability. You can walk at the mall or use an indoor walking workout video. There are many free walking videos available to stream online.
  • The CDC has created a series of videos featuring muscle-strengthening exercises that you can do at home.
  • Make the chores you have to do part of your fitness routine. Why not put on some music while you clean the house to speed up your pace and raise your heart rate?
  • If you have little ones at your house, include them in the fun with these ideas for indoor active games to play with children.

If you choose to exercise outdoors during the winter months, make sure you do so safely. The American Heart Association has some helpful recommendations for being active in cold weather.

Share how you stay active during the winter on Twitter (@SpendEatSmart) or Facebook (Spend Smart. Eat Smart.)

Enjoy these activities while we count down the days until Spring!

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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