Go outside and play

For improved physical and mental health, outdoor recreation can be perfect prescription
Published on May 01, 2005
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Prepared by the AVMA Group Health and Life Insurance Trust

Parents everywhere have long given that suggestion to their children—a suggestion that was, and is, superb.

Recreation—especially outdoor recreation—delivers a multitude of benefits, especially to veterinarians and other individuals in stress-filled occupations. In fact, stress reduction is one of those benefits. A brisk walk in the woods or playing fetch with one's dog allows pent-up energy and emotion to be released, and might be the perfect antidote to a difficult day at work. According to the Gallup Poll for American Health, Americans who exercised regularly were two-and-a-half times as likely to report they were happier than Americans who didn't exercise at all.

It's not just exercise that's important; it's the very nature of being outside that enhances the benefit. An article in the Journal of Leisure Research indicates a visit to the great outdoors can even lower blood pressure. Other studies claim a walk in the woods can give a boost to the immune system.

A jog around the park can certainly lift one's mood, and one study even calculated how much exercise might significantly lower depression scores over time. In an article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine earlier this year, researchers claim that burning about 8 calories per pound of body weight per week in aerobic exercise offers the optimal mood-boosting benefit.

When recreation is shared with friends and family, the benefits multiply. Exercising together can strengthen family bonds and friendships, and these important relationships are key to balancing a hectic professional life.

The long hours put in by veterinarians may leave many feeling too tired to exercise. But exercise can actually help stave off the feeling of fatigue. Aiming for 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day can not only increase energy, but also contribute to better sleep—which can also help minimize fatigue.

Less stress and more energy are enough reason to get off the couch and outside to exercise. The other overall health benefits are also compelling. It's no surprise that sports participants, and even individuals who simply engage in moderate yet regular exercise, enjoy better weight control, lower blood pressures, and lower resting pulse rates. The physically fit person is also less prone to injury. Fitness programs improve muscle strength and joint flexibility, and help combat osteoporosis later in life—a particular concern for women. Exercise may also provide protection against heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.

A study done by The National Recreation and Park Association makes a connection between health and outdoor activity. The study suggests that citizens who had better access to parks, visited parks more frequently, and engaged in physical activities also made fewer visits to their doctor (for reasons other than a regular check-up).

The results of inactivity can even be calculated financially.

Authors of a study of individuals aged 15 and older who had no physical limitations, published in the October 2000 issue of The Physician and Sportsmedicine, claim that the average annual direct medical costs for inactive individuals are about a third higher than they are for active individuals.

How big is the problem of inactivity in America? According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60 percent of U.S. adults do not get enough physical activity to provide health benefits. In the extreme case, physical inactivity is responsible for an estimated 200,000 deaths every year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The problem is worsening—the current high prevalence of obesity being just one example.

The remedy will be found on many fronts—from national efforts, such as The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports—to community, business, and personal initiatives.

The National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity offers recommendations for communities hoping to reverse the current trend toward inactivity. Key recommendations include planning and designing communities that foster walking and biking; ensuring access for all to well-maintained parks, trails, and recreational facilities; and supporting healthy school environments, including neighborhood rather than regional schools, mandatory physical education classes, and safe routes to school programs.

Veterinary practices and other businesses can get involved by providing opportunities during the workday for walking or other exercise and even supporting gym memberships. There are studies indicating that exercise programs can help employees be more productive at work and can decrease absenteeism.

Consider every minute of physical activity—especially outdoor activity—to be a deposit into the bank of wellness. Outdoor recreation will pay back big dividends in physical and emotional well-being throughout a lifetime.