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Why The Dangers of Contemporary and Indoor Living Are Far Reaching

If you’re like most people, you’ve like spent entirely too much time indoors this winter which is not a good thing. Sounding a bit like our moms, health professionals have been saying for some time that we should find something to do outside, and it's about a lot more than just exercise.

The "Inside" Story

Spending a lot of time indoors hurts our health, physically and mentally. You may be surprised to hear that it even hurts our vision -- too much focusing on things close up and not enough focusing on distant objects has been linked to myopia.

Daphne Miller, MD, author of The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World -- Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You, who has been spearheading many efforts to get Americans outside has excellent insights on this subject. Dr. Miller identified some of the factors keeping us indoors...

  • Our virtual lives have overtaken real-world activities. Recent research shows that children ages eight to 18 spend, on average, a whopping seven and a half hours a day using electronic media -- and grown-ups aren’t far behind, averaging about four to six-plus hours daily. Meanwhile, a spate of studies has recently focused on the dangers of sitting for extended periods of time, which now has been identified as a risk factor for heart disease.
  • We’re scared of sunshine. Dermatologists have harped on the sun as the enemy and warned us for many years to avoid it for fear of skin cancer. As a result, Americans are suffering an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency. This is worrisome, given that vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk for health problems such as multiple sclerosis and breast cancer.
  • We have an overblown fear of outdoor public places. Dr. Miller says she has found that people worry so much about the risk of being robbed, attacked or abducted in parks that they stay away from them. The cost, ironically, is their health.

Twiddling Our Thumbs

One study found that about the only use of many public lands is for picnicking -- but even there, people generally go no further than 50 or so yards from their cars in the parking lot. (And, of course, a lot of picnic time involves sitting and eating.)

Dr. Miller is one of many physicians urging Americans to get up and go outside where there are a wealth of different activities you can enjoy that will improve your health in a myriad of ways. Dr. Miller recommends being outside each day from 30 to 60 minutes.

Park It Here

Many people are unaware of the many beautiful parks right near their homes. Look online to find listings of parks and recreational areas near where you live -- you’ll find that many communities post maps and guides of their paths and trails for walking, jogging, hiking and biking. Other ideas for spending time in local parks include...

  • Events. Many communities offer an ongoing calendar of outdoor community activities, including concerts, sporting events, walk-a-thons and other opportunities to spend time outdoors on your own or in the company of others.
  • Finding inner peace outdoors. Meditating in a natural environment is soothing to the soul. The gentle Asian exercise tai chi is traditionally done out of doors, and some yoga and other movement classes hold sessions outside as well.
  • Catch on to geocaching. This newly popular activity is like a scavenger hunt. Participants use GPS devices to locate hidden containers filled with "treasures" (geocaches) and exchange accounts of their adventures online. Learn more about it, and find out about geocaching near you, at

You Can Do It At Home

But you needn’t journey to another location to benefit from spending time outdoors because you can achieve many of the same benefits by opening up your front (or back) door and heading out into your own yard or neighborhood. Consider...

  • Daily walks. These are not only excellent exercise
  • Gardening. Dr. Miller points out that planting vegetables or even just taking care of a small patch of flowers gets you outdoors and using your muscles often.
  • Outside group activities. Like-minded friends and neighbors can bicycle, run or go race-walking, which is easier on the joints than running (and you don’t have to be actually racing). Or simply play catch. Remember how soothing it was to simply be in the rhythm of tossing a ball back and forth with a friend?

You Can Also Do... Nothing!

Sometimes you may just want to sit under a tree and relax. By all means, do so -- even that enhances your health. For example, several studies find that surgery patients who have a window overlooking trees actually heal faster than others, and a Japanese study showed that spending several hours a week among trees improved people’s immune systems, an effect that lasted throughout the week. Instead of stalling out in front of the TV, then, come up with a list of five or so activities that you think you would have fun doing outside. Get up, get out and get busy with your list. You’ll be glad you did.

Daphne Miller, MD, is a family physician, based in San Francisco, and author of The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World -- Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You (Harper). Dr. Miller also is professor of nutrition and integrative medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.


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