Posted on June 24, 2010 by Debra Burdick
Getting outside to play provides the double benefits of both exercise and being outdoors. I recently went for a 22 mile ride on a bike path in Rhode Island. There were lots of people out walking, bike riding, flying kites, playing ball, and picnicking. These people were not only having fun and improving muscles strength and cardiac health, but they were also improving their brain health, their mood, their sleep, their concentration, and their hyperactivity.
Exercising the body exercises the brain and helps improve brain function in important ways. Dr Amen in his book Making a Good Brain Great, states that physical exercise “is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to keep your neurons healthy over time.” Exercise increases oxygen and glucose delivery to the brain, reduces damage from toxins, protects memory structures form high stress conditions, and actually stimulates the brain’s ability to generate new neurons. Other studies are beginning to show that regular, vigorous workouts may prevent or at least delay the onset of dementia and even the memory problems we associate with normal aging.
Dr Amen states that he has seen a direct relationship between the amount of exercise a child gets and the severity of their ADHD symptoms. Therefore, it is extremely important for you and your child to get regular exercise. Unfortunately, a Kaiser Family Foundation Study found that kids in the US spend an average of six hours a day in front of a TV, computer or gaming console screen. The amount of time spent watching traditional TV increases with age. Teenagers (12 to 17) spend 103 hours watching TV a month, whereas senior citizens (65 and older) spend 207 hours. That’s about seven hours a day. This prevents them from getting even the minimum amount of exercise necessary for basic brain health.
Participating in a favorite sport or physical activity can improve eye-hand coordination, concentration, planning, organizing, decision making, confidence, and impulse control – all things everyone needs. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that older people who started exercising showed faster reaction times and better ability to focus and actually increased their brain size by about 3 percent.
Other studies show that exercise improves mood. In one study of depression, half the participants were given an anti-depressant and half a moderate walking program. Seven months later depression had improved the same amount in both groups.
Exercise also improves sleep. A recent Stanford University Medical School study found that older and middle-age people reported sleeping better when they added regular exercise to their routine. After 16 weeks in a moderate intensity exercise program, subjects were able to fall asleep about 15 minutes earlier and sleep about 45 minutes longer at night. Be sure to be done exercising at least 2 hours before bedtime.
We are biologically designed to be outdoors. Our early ancestors spent most of their time outdoors. But now, most people in our society spend at least 80% of their time indoors. We need the sunlight to provide Vitamin D. We need fresh air. Being outdoors helps us concentrate better, balances our hormones, promotes weight loss, and resets our circadian rhythms. Connecting with the rhythms of nature help us to de-stress and rejuvenate.
Taking a break from your day and going outside may result in better mental clarity and a longer attention span. Researchers Marc Berman, John Jonides and Stephen Kaplan found memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent after people spent an hour interacting with nature. They also believe the findings could have broader impact on helping people who may be suffering from mental fatigue.
Another study found that contact with nature could improve attentional functioning in children with ADHD. The study was based on a theory called Attention Restoration Theory which proposes that spending time in natural environments can improve the ability to pay attention. In this carefully controlled experimental study, a 20-minute walk in nature produced significant gains in children’s performance on a standardized test of attention/concentration comparable to gains associated with stimulant medication treatment. Therefore, sending your child outside to play for 20 minutes or going for a walk with them before they do their homework may improve their ability to pay attention to their homework when they come inside. And it will help you, too.
Getting outside to play will help someone who is hyperactive to use up some of their excess energy. It is extremely difficult for someone who is hyperactive to sit still. They are often cooped up in the classroom or office all day with no outlet for their need to move. Let kids burn off some steam when they get home from school. They need to run around, jump up and down, ride their bicycle, play tag – whatever gets them outside and moving. Adults benefit from getting outside and being physically active after work or during a short break during the work day. The exercise is essential for their success when they need to sit still and focus.
Try different options for you and your child to get outside and play.You may find that an organized team sport works well. Besides getting some exercise, your child will learn about teamwork, skill building, social skills, and cooperation. When you participate, you will make some friends and feel more connected. But be aware that not all team sports will provide enough regular aerobic exercise, especially if most of the time is spent standing around at practice or sitting on the bench during a game. And be sure to include sports that are done outdoors.
Develop a habit of including time in your schedule to spend regular time outdoors. This might include going for a walk or run, riding your bicycle, playing ball, flying a kite, going for a swim, skiing, fishing, or gardening. It might also include time to simply sit in a beautiful spot to quiet your mind and connect with the rhythms of nature including the sounds of the birds, the breeze in the trees, the animals in the woods, the waves at the beach, the smells of fresh earth or salt water, the beauty of the clouds, the peace of the sunset.
Go ahead. Give yourself permission to go outside and play!
I would love to hear your personal experiences with this topic.