“It is vitally important to human health and well-being to be able to spend time in natural spaces such as parks, gardens, beaches, and forests.” -- David R. Boyd, “The Optimistic Environmentalist”
My cystic fibrosis doctor, like most today, highly encourages exercise as part of my overall care plan. Following a health scare in 2014 when my FEV1 suddenly dropped by 30 percent, I got serious about making running a habit to help improve my lung health. Little did I know, that lifestyle change would lead to numerous health benefits and the development of a lifelong passion.
I primarily run outside in a natural setting among pastures and prairies without the distraction of people, cars, or buildings. There's so much beauty around me that I often have to stop -- mid-run -- to take it all in. Running isn't only about exercise as an airway clearance technique (ACT) for me; it's about crouching down to get a good look at a wildflower growing along the road, petting a horse in a pasture, letting my running buddy, Copper, wade around in a creek, or watching a butterfly float above me.
Noticing these little wonders led to more of an appreciation for nature, as well as gratitude for being able to run and getting to do it outside. I look forward to running outside for the quality time I get with the sun, wind, flowers, grasses, and critters. That might sound silly to you, but it is scientifically proven that spending time in nature is good for our mental, emotional, and physical well-being; it can lower blood pressure, improve blood glucose, lift depression, boost the immune system, and increase concentration and memory, among other things. As a person living with CF, those are all things I could use some help with! I first read about these benefits in a book called, “Forest Bathing,” by Dr. Qing Li, MD, PhD. And, I've actually experienced these benefits myself while running in the countryside.
I feel calmer, happier, and more at ease when I'm running outside, especially when I hear birds instead of traffic, and my view is of rolling green hills instead of cityscapes. Spending time in nature is helping me with my mental and physical health -- borrowing some concepts from yoga -- such as taking deep breaths or taking a moment to contemplate a tree -- have helped me to center myself and bring me back to the present when I'm feeling anxious. And as for my physical health, I am 27 and my lung function has steadily increased in recent years. I definitely credit some of that success to running outside.
As my connection to nature has grown, I have become curious about the plants, animals, and insects that I see. I often will spot a new plant or critter, get up close and personal, make a mental note about its features, and look it up when I get home. It's through this process that I have learned a lot about Kansas plants and animals, making them that much more precious to me. It has also made me want to know more about the threats to our environment today, of which there are plenty.
I started educating myself about environmental issues so that I could be informed, reduce my impact on the environment, and take action. I read books about environmental issues, I advocate for environmental protection, and I get involved however I can. I volunteer with organizations such as The Nature Conservancy to help protect our land and water, and I'm even working with the Kansas Department of Wildlife to restore a few of acres of our property back to native prairie to replace some of our lost ecosystem. As I continue to learn, I experience a good deal of anxiety about our deteriorating environment and natural places, but taking action empowers me by being part of the solution, and spending time outside helps to alleviate that anxiety.
In an unexpected way, having CF has led to my relationship with nature and my desire to protect it. If it weren't for my need for airway clearance, I probably wouldn't have stuck with running, and I wouldn't have spent so much time outside. Cystic fibrosis can be stressful, and anxiety and depression often result. But nature connects us to the bigger picture. For me, being reminded that I am just a very tiny being on a big planet within an even bigger universe, helps to calm my mind. This mindset helps me fight for a healthy planet and reduces my anxiety when I'm experiencing health issues related to CF.
Taking care of my health and advocating for nature are at the top of my priority list, and in a very real way they go hand in hand -- people can't exist without nature, so it's vital that we care for our environment, as well as our personal health. Whether it's running outside or simply spending time in a hospital garden, any intentional exposure to nature can help improve our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
More people spending time outside means more people learning to care about the environment and fighting to protect it, which we need now more than ever in a time where climate change, species and habitat loss, plasticization of our oceans, pollution of our air and water, and overpopulation pose serious risks to the survival of life on earth. So go hug a tree, thank it for the oxygen it provides you, and see how your perception changes.