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Friendly forests and nurturing nature.

South Korea even has a Jangseong healing forest where 2000 plus visitors per month walk through its expanse of cypress trees seeking healing and relaxation – in addition to taking in its sheer beauty. Described by Florence Williams in her book, The nature fix, the two and a half million trees are said to have reduced stress 53% and lowered blood pressure 5% to 7%. She was told the phytoncides are antibacterial and even the soil is good for healing. After only a few minutes of walking, Williams felt more awake than she had been all day.

Korean researchers found that the immune-boosting killer T cells of women with breast cancer increased after a two-week forest visit and stayed elevated for 14 days. People in nature as opposed to the city achieved better fitness and were more likely to continue exercising.

Visits to Korea’s country forest increased from 9.4 million in 2010 to 12.7 million in 2013, while in the U.S., visits to national forests dropped by 25%. In North America at least, we are not taking advantage of the healing power of forests.

There are few trees in cities to absorb particulate matter from pollution, and scientists found that pollution from diesel, as an example, shortens lifespan by causing cardiovascular and pulmonary problems. Black carbon from fires and cook stoves are blamed for 2.1 million premature deaths annually around the world.

It’s not just the lungs that are affected by pollution. The nose allows a direct pathway to the brain, bypassing the blood brain barrier. (This became obvious in 2003 when researchers found brain lesions on stray dogs in smoggy Mexico City.) After spending over 50 years in traffic-congested, smoggy Toronto, it’s no wonder I feel so much better both physically and mentally in the town of Sussex, New Brunswick – surrounded by forests and lacking any pollution-spewing factories or exhaust from  traffic congestion.

To give you an idea of the effectiveness of trees in keeping our air breathable, William’s book reports that a 2014 study estimates trees in the U.S. remove 17.4 million tons of air pollution per year, providing $6.8 billion in human health benefits.

All of this convinces me that my move from the city to the country was well worth the effort.

Richard Louv, in his book, The nature principle, claims that spending time in nature can make aging easier. He refers to it as “nature-assisted aging.” I know I feel younger when I’m walking in a park or along a nature trail. And as someone commented in Louv’s book, “It brings out the excitement and enthusiasm I had as a youngster. I know my body is getting old, but as long as I remain connected to nature, I don’t feel old.”

Louv also mentioned several studies indicating the benefits of gardening. One showed that when elderly residents in retirement apartments had a garden view they experienced greater satisfaction and stronger feelings of well-being. Another study, where one group of institutionalized seniors were provided gardening time, it resulted in emotional and mental improvement as well as pinch and grip strength and improved dexterity. An Australian study found that daily gardening was associated with a 36% reduction in the risk of developing dementia.

The above studies may also show the benefits of exercise as well as the impact of exposure to nature. The more exercise one gets, the more the cells release antioxidants for their protection. It would appear that nature walks, gardening and exercising outdoors are all beneficial for seniors – and anyone for that matter.

Moncton Hospital in New Brunswick, about a half-hour drive from where I live, has a roof garden called a “healing garden” with room for exercise. They have found it reduces the medication needed for sleep disorders and helps mental health.

If that’s true, and few people would doubt it based on the research, the Fundy Trail, only a 45-minute drive from Sussex, should be promoted as a healing trail. 16 km of hiking and biking trails and 19 km of parkway with breathtaking views of the Fundy coast should take anyone’s mind off their ailments. And imagine tides that rise 32 feet! Nature at its best.

New Brunswick, now my province of choice, is not an ideal place for lucrative jobs. It currently has the lowest median net worth of any other province in the country, according to a December, 2017 report from Statistics Canada. But money can’t buy health.

It’s interesting to note that young people leave in droves to seek out high paying jobs in the big cities, only to return in their senior years. New Brunswick and the other Atlantic provinces have the highest percentage of seniors in the country according to Statistics Canada. It’s an ideal place for retirement because of its lower cost of living as well as its quality of life.

I’m not saying you should move to Sussex; but you should definitely draw closer to nature if at all possible. And if not, at least draw nature (in the form of plants, greenery and scenic views) closer to you.

 

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Friendship clubs can increase longevity.

 I promised periodic updates on country living and how it can increase health and longevity. Here is a description of a local friendship club, simple and informal, that I mention in a new book I am writing with the working title of “How to grow old without growing older.” Following the description, I summarize in point form those benefits relating to health and well-being that could result from participating in all of the activities provided by the club.

Associated with the Sussex and area seniors’ centre, a group called the Fundy Silverados Friendship Club, was started by a handful of senior men who penned the mission statement “To enhance the quality of life for members through fellowship and the helping of others in need.” I joined shortly after arriving in Sussex, NB just over a year ago.

There are about 50 of us at the time of writing, and our ages vary from the late fifties to the late nineties – all of us young enough to attend regularly and participate in the events, which are not physically demanding. We get together every Tuesday morning at 9:30 for fun and friendship.  Most of us arrive early around 9 AM and listen to various members playing the fiddle, banjo, organ, or guitar as well as singing. I’m amazed at the talent of some of our members.

We all wear name tags (with extra-large lettering) at every meeting, and greet one another as we arrive.

Our meetings usually last 90 minutes, with the first 30 minutes spent meeting and greeting, renewing friendships and taking part in or listening to music. We start the “formal” part of the meeting by singing “Oh Canada” and have a guest speaker at most meetings – one who talks and answers questions on a topic of interest to seniors.

We have a “Fines Master” who dreams up ridiculous 25-cent fines for members – such as anyone not wearing a red tie (I have never seen a tie worn there yet) or anyone who isn’t wearing his “Silverados” cap. (Few would risk doing so in public.)

Some members contribute items that are auctioned to the highest bidder – usually at ridiculously low or ridiculously high prices. The items are frequently healthy, fresh vegetables, honey or maple syrup from the farms; but could be anything from 30-year old National Geographic magazines to someone’s hand-made bird house.

The members agree on which of the local charities should receive any extra funds we may generate through these “fun” auctions, trumped up fines, membership fees, and miscellaneous activities.

There is also a tradition of telling jokes or reading humorous poems – a popular part of the program.

We have about a dozen committees on the go so that everyone has an opportunity to actively participate, including volunteer drivers, visitation to those who are ill, telephone committee, membership, program, and so on. We have a roll call at each meeting so we can keep track of our members and identify who may be ill – or simply “on vacation.”

We also have dinners and other activities with our spouses/companions throughout the year, and once a month our meeting venue is a local restaurant, where we have breakfast that morning.

We adjourn all our meetings with the singing of “God Save Our Queen.”

 Health benefits of groups such as this:

  • Provides members with the social interaction and opportunity to build the friendships so vital to increased health and longevity. Data collected from Brigham Young University showed that people with active social lives were 50% less likely to die from any cause than their non-social counterparts.
  • Provides an opportunity for involvement at the committee level and active volunteering, which has been shown to increase longevity. Scientists have tracked 2025 people aged 55 and older for 5 years and found that those who volunteered for even one organisation, were 26% less likely to die during the study than those who didn’t volunteer.
  • Adds purpose and significance to a senior’s life, which in some cases might be lacking. According to research on aging, those with purpose and goals in life reported higher levels of satisfaction and well-being.
  • Provides mental stimulation and moderate exercise and an opportunity to get out of the house and become both physically and mentally more active. Keeping the brain active, even if it’s just listening to a speaker, writing or memorizing someone’s name, helps grow new brain cells.
  • Introduces caring into the lives of those with limited mobility by regular visitation, telephone conversation, and “get well” or “thinking of you” cards. People thrive on attention. Hugging, for instance, based on research, is believed to fight infection, boost your immune system, ease depression, and lessen fatigue and lower blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Through the “joke period” and personal interaction, and levity of most of the activities, fun and laughter are introduced into the seniors’ lives, which in themselves have been known to aid in healing and even cure diseases. Laughter has been known to reduce blood pressure and heart rate and increase respiration. When you laugh, the body releases endorphins, and depression declines.
  • Provides lifelong learning through guest speakers and one-on-one conversations, one of the major ways of keeping cognitively fit and avoiding or delaying dementia. Research indicates that lifelong learning could delay the onset of cognitive impairment by 3 to 8 years.
  • Both playing a musical instrument and listening to music can enhance learning and higher brain function and even improve memory performance. It increases creativity and learning skills. Background music has also been known to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve concentration.

One of the greatest benefits of a friendship club, regardless of whether it consists of five people at a coffee shop or 55 people in a Golden Jubilee Senior’s Centre, which is the case with our Silverados group, is that it gets you out of the house and counteracts loneliness. The lonely are twice as likely to have ulcers. And go back to an empty house after your first heart attack and you double the risk of a second heart attack within a few months – proof that you should seek companionship at all times.

You will also find that seniors with common interests tend to get together at other times during the week – in groups of two to ten or more – at Tim Horton’s or McDonald’s, either for early morning coffee or breakfast. And according to the many scientists, the more friendships you develop, the longer you live.

Friendship clubs are excellent places to meet people who have formed these smaller groups that meet more frequently.

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Take charge of your health

You might think that neuroticism, frequently linked to depression and anxiety, would be considered a trait that would shorten your life span. But it could actually lengthen your lifespan, according to one study that was published in Psychological Science and reported in the November/December, 2017 issue of Psychology Today. Of the 321,000 people studied, those who rated themselves low on health tended to have a lower mortality rate. It’s thought that people who scored high in neuroticism and rated their own health as poor or fair might make greater use of primary care and go to hospitals more often.

This isn’t suggesting that you become neurotic; but it could suggest that it pays to get regular checkups and not write off the medical profession simply because you have had some success with natural remedies – or nature itself, as I discussed in a previous blog article, “The greening of my life.” We also need the medical profession in order to live a long and fruitful life.

I have been writing a lot about the importance of sunshine, attitude, lifestyle and environmental factors for healthy living. I do believe in the power of such things as nature, sleep, relationships, music and the environment to improve both your health and longevity. But I still go to the dentist when I have a toothache, and owe my life to doctors who nipped my cancer in the bud, performed surgeries when necessary, and diagnosed the diseases and complaints I have experienced along the way.

David B Agus, MD, in his book, A short guide to a long life, indicates that a staggering seven out of 10 deaths among Americans each year are from chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, dementia, kidney disease and diabetes. He also suggests that there is a plethora of information available in this high-tech age on how to stay healthy. And yet prevention is a hard sell – perhaps because we tend to live in the moment rather than prepare for the future.

To quote Dr. Angus, “preventable non-communicable diseases now account for more deaths worldwide than all the causes combined.” If we took an active interest in our own health – enough at least to carve out a lifestyle that would pay off in the future – we would have a much better chance of extending our lifespan.

We are so conditioned to “buy now and pay later” that we frequently do the same with our health – we overindulge or eat junk food and pay for it later in life.

As far as preventative health measures are concerned, there is no “one fits all” regime that we can adopt. For example, such things as acupuncture, aromatherapy and massage can be effective only for certain conditions and certain people. But there are some things we can all do that seem to help everyone, such as exercise, adequate sleep and exposure to nature.

In my book, “How work environment impacts productivity”, published by Bookboon.com, I discuss not only how the nature impacts not only our personal productivity, but in many cases our health as well

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Is your office killing you?

Luxury office

Most Canadians spend at least half there waking hours sitting – and for business people most of this takes place in their office. According to research, spending this much time sitting can increase the risk of health issues. Tom Rath, in his book Eat Move Sleep, claims that sitting more than six hours a day greatly increases the risk of an early death.

An article aptly titled Killer chairs, which appeared in the November, 2014 issue of Scientific American, provides statistics based on 18 studies reported during the past 16 years, covering 800,000 people. Among the findings:

  • Those sitting for over four hours a day watching TV had a 46% increase in deaths from any cause than those spending less than two hours a day.
  • Sitting for more than half the day doubles the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
  • Obese people sat 2.25 hours longer than their lean counterparts every day, and expended 350 fewer calories.

If you think your self-discipline in keeping your bottom glued to a chair and focusing on work for six hours a day’s increases your productivity, think again. For years it has been known that standing up can improve performance. Research at the University of California long ago showed that people digest complex facts better and make quicker decisions when standing. Some actually absorbed information 40% faster.

A study reported by CNN suggested that standing desks could boost productivity for some employees by 46%. Researchers studied the productivity of employees at a call centre for a pharmaceutical company over a six month period. Within one month of getting standing desks, employees were 23% more productive than those using traditional desks. Within five months productivity had increased 53%.

More recent studies reported in the August 27, 2016 issue of Toronto Star show that giving kids standing desks in school helps them burn more calories and improves behavioural classroom engagement.

So it’s not simply health benefits that should prompt you to get out of your chair more often. I wouldn’t expect you to improve productivity by 50% – but even a 10% boost would be a bonus, considering the health aspects of standing up.

Sitting at a desk five days a week could compress your spine, degenerate your muscles, and according to at least a few reports, even cause depression or cancer. One 2013 Australian survey of 63,048 middle-aged men found that those who sat for more than four hours a day were more likely to have a chronic disease like high blood pressure and heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

What can you do about it?

The surprising thing is that neither Tom Rath nor the other authors and researchers seem to be suggesting jogging or marathon walks to remedy the problem, but rather to simply get out of your chair. Get up and move around, as we were created to do, rather than lead a sedentary life. Walk around while you talk on the phone, work at a stand-up desk, have stand-up meetings, take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to the local mall instead of taking the car — are the type of recommendations these authors seem to be supporting.

Tom Rath claims that as soon as you sit down, electrical activity in your leg muscles shuts off, the number of calories you burn drops to one per minute, and enzyme production, which helps to break down fat, drops by 90%. And after sitting for two hours your good cholesterol drops by 20%.

Simply standing increases your energy, and walking increases energy levels by about 150%. Take the stairs and you could increase energy by more than 200%. Stand, stretch, move, walk — anything that will get you out of that killer chair.

Dr. Mark Benton, creator of the Stand 2 Learn school desks, claimed his studies showed that all moving, even if it’s just squirming, is actually having an effect on health.

John Griffin, a professor of the Fitness and Health Promotion Program at George Brown College in Toronto, claims that by integrating physical activity (sitting less) into our daily lives we can overcome the detrimental health effects of sitting.

In the office you might consider alternating between a stationary desk and a standing desk. Experiment to see what type of work is best done sitting, standing or while walking around the office. Working on your desktop or laptop, as well as work involving physical skills such as art work or drafting is probably done best while sitting, problem solving, planning, decision-making and other mental tasks might be done best while standing or walking.

And don’t forget the advantage of spending time in another location altogether, such as at a picnic bench or in a coffee shop. This will be discussed in my next blog.

Next blog article: Find an office away from the office.