Vitamin G: this newly discovered miracle can improve your life. Other vitamins have risen and fallen in popularity. Vitamins A, B, C, D, and E all failed to match their once-touted benefits. While they are necessary for life, high doses haven’t been shown to improve health more than the minimum nutritional requirements.
So why push yet another one? Never heard of vitamin G you say? No, the “G” doesn’t stand for “Grandma.” Vitamin G is what I’m calling green space, nature, trees, bushes, plants. As it turns out, these are all really good for you, and we have the science to prove it.
When I was a busy mom, working full-time as a physician and researcher, my only time to exercise was at 5 a.m. Not feeling safe outdoors alone at that hour, I opted for the treadmill route. It got the job done, but wasn’t particularly pleasurable. After the kids were grown, I moved my exercise program outdoors. I began to drag my husband out of the house for walks, and later added walking with neighborhood friends. I’ve discovered the pleasure and peace of outdoor walking, especially in natural areas. In the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with moderate climates that allow walks in parks and trails year-round. The favorable weather conditions also mean beautiful neighborhood gardens. My eyes are drawn to the greenest areas—a tree canopy on an old street, the bushes on a local bike path, a neighbor’s plantings, everything in an old-growth forest. I now feel deprived if I haven’t had my daily dose of green.
I’ll admit I’m not always thinking of the health benefits as I walk. If I’m with my husband or friend, I’m concentrating on the conversation. On a difficult path, I’m wondering if I’ll fall head first down that cliff. If I’m alone in a deserted area, I’m worried about safety. On what I call a “zen walk,” alone on a safe pedestrian path, I’m trying not to think of anything, trying to remain in the present. But through all of these experiences, I feel the restorative powers of green. My racing thoughts slow down, my heart rate feels more regular, the tension in my shoulders dissipates.
Recently, a rigorous clinical trial found that a 90 minute walk in nature significantly decreased the participants’ levels of brooding. The study assigned 19 individuals randomly to walk in nature, and 19 to walk near urban traffic. The participants also underwent brain scans, and the researchers were able to see less activity in the rumination centers of the brain after the nature walk, but no change after the urban-setting walk. Earlier, these and other researchers discovered that exposure to nature lowers anxiety, improves mood, enhances thinking skills, and has benefits on measurable health parameters like blood pressure, heart rate, and blood indicators of stress.
Of course, these benefits depend on taking precautions to lower adverse experiences. The restorative power of a walk in nature will be ruined if you fall and break an ankle. Similarly, a bee sting from sniffing a neighbor’s lavender bush could lessen your outdoor joy. So think about what you’re doing and where, and take steps to lower your risk. Protect yourself against climate, use sunscreen, take water with you, and have a phone for emergencies. Women and other vulnerable populations attend to risks of assault, and may feel more comfortable walking with companions, or in well-lit, populated, open areas. Dog walking can benefit both the animal and the owner’s sense of safety. And please vigilantly watch for motor vehicles as you travel to and from your areas of nature. I guarantee you those drivers aren’t sharing your zen thoughts as they speed through the crosswalk you thought gave you priority.
If you’re not able to walk outdoors, you can still enjoy the pleasures of nature in other ways, such as indoor or outdoor gardening, visiting an arboretum or plant store, or just sitting in a park, forest, or nature preserve. In her young wisdom, Anne Frank said it best: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God.”