Monthly Archives: May 2014

Warm Walking Months

May 30, 2014

It’s summer already, at least by some definitions. The solstice is a few weeks out yet, but in between Memorial Day and Labor Day, things get lazy, time slows. It’s happening. Hot days and cool nights, the sound of crickets volleying outside the windowscreens, luring us out for a night walk, a morning walk, even a scorching midday walk that reminds the skin what a tan is.

By less apparent measures, we’re now in between the two National Walking Months, as the UK’s version taking place in May wraps up. This will hopefully leave us with several good walking months instead of a quick retreat to the air conditioning as June barges in, melting the ice cubes in our water bottles. The US isn’t due for a National Walking Month until October, a kind of pleasingly improbable time to hold such an event.

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To start off the month, the BBC ran an article charmingly titled “The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking.” Seeing as this is hardly news, one might suppose it dies slowly every year around this time, or at least molts. Leaving alone the usual bevy of sad statistics, the writer instead turns to favorite literary greats whose cultural fortunes may have been made on walking. Dickens, Thoreau, Woolf, Wordsworth; name-dropping Nietzsche and Nabokov.

“But you don’t have to be an author to see the value of walking,” he wrote. “A particular kind of walking. Not the distance between porch and corner shop. But a more aimless pursuit.” Regular walking isn’t good enough? Next they’ll be telling us we have to go forest bathe or something. The article itself seemed to lose aim at this point, and seemingly not looking where it was going, veered into a tangent on walking while texting. The writer consulted veteran walking spokespeople Rebecca Solnit and Geoff Nicholson for their advice on paying attention while moving around, leaving the reader with a handful of rules:

Boil down the books on walking and you’re left with some key tips:

Walk further and with no fixed route
Stop texting and mapping
Don’t soundtrack your walks
Go alone
Find walkable places
Walk mindfully

Go alone? Well, sometimes, but depending on where you live in Detroit, don’t test this one out too extensively at home. Advice better suited for the UK’s lovely coastal and cross-country trail systems. As one British walker and blogger snarked, “Don’t laugh. Oh OK, laugh. What is this ‘walk mindfully’ shit? New age Gladwellian self-improvement crap, I’d bet.” He continued, “Best thing about walking is anyone can do it, at any time, in any place, and find things they never expected even where they live. It doesn’t need ‘selling’ in that way. It doesn’t desperately need an ‘angle’.” What if it does? If people were getting around on foot enough, advocacy organizations wouldn’t be hosting walking months, and I wouldn’t be writing this.

How will the US’s committee for walking month brand their special formulation of foot-body coordination this fall? We can hope it might be without excoriating the “daftest temptation” of lunching “al desko” (as opposed to al fresco — but isn’t walking while you eat the antithesis of doing either action mindfully?). Same goes for the FEZ, or “food exclusion zones,” where one must walk outside a certain area before being rewarded with the ability to purchase some lunch. (Incidentally, Living Streets uses “muffins burned” as a metric for walking success, having torched 10,151 of them during Walk to Work Week alone, about 5.5 million calories worth; this is the number of muffins above basal metabolic rate that it takes to power a human 2.27 times around the Equator). The FEZ is a great idea to encourage exploration, but perhaps Americans fare better with less dogmatic advice. Just being told to walk more, however you want to do it, is more than enough for some people.

Living Streets, the group that puts together the UK’s National Walking Month, has a couple of tip sheets (pdf), which include American favorites such as power walking, counting calories, and saving money — but also learning the history of buildings and names of trees along your route, carrying an “emergency” picnic blanket, extinguishing negative thoughts, and having your “jotter at the ready” in case you encounter any especially creative thoughts.

So, however you decide to regard these appeals to movement, happy warm walking months. In addition to the British-bequeathed literary celebration Bloomsday on the 16th, June is full of pedestrian affairs. It’s Great Outdoors Month, with National Trails Day on the 7th, and National Get Outdoors Day brought to you by Off! brand inspect repellent on the 14th. If by then you’re too tired by all the outdoor and hopefully ambulatory fun to make it back into your house, the month ends with a Disney-sponsored Great American Backyard Campout on the 28th, which you can do mindfully if you like, but perhaps best not alone.

Have any tips for thriving over these kinds of holidays? Making your walk whatever you need it to be seems soundest, from a jubiliant game of thing-finding to a funeral procession. The British might also tell you to make sure to take along plenty of sun cream.

Forest bathing

May 24, 2014

Cities can be stressful places. Crowds, traffic, crime, grime, offices, jobs, chairs, factories, chemicals, freeways, too many odiferous White Castle locations — it wears on a body. The industry formed around reducing stress to manageable levels is vast and worth some stressful number of dollars. Fortunately, many of the ways to counteract the stresses of living and living in cities are cheap and abundant. Breathing deeply, walking around, and finding some nature are obvious antidotes.

Finding nature, even in a city known for its wilderness — its pheasants and hawks, coyotes and foxes, fields of tall grass and sprawling mulberry trees — can be tricky. Officially, there’s Belle Isle, of course, and Rouge Park, and, if you’re really desperate, the meager route of the concrete-encased Dequindre Cut Greenway. But the pursuit of the real forest experience, free from the sounds and scents of civilization, encourages some Detroiters to trek outside the city.

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What is it about nature that is so deeply relaxing to human physiology? Studies have demonstrated that simply looking at pictures of woodsy scenes calms the brain. Scientists have also been reviving and formally investigating the effects of supposedly traditional practices like forest bathing. Forest bathing! Just the phrase sounds like a balm for our frenetic selves. The Finnish Forest Research Institute is conducting a multi-year study on forests and human wellbeing, and South Korea is investing $140 million in a new National Forest Therapy Center. Japan is the leader in forest medicine, with 48 forest therapy trails as of 2012, and 52 more planned in the coming years. This is a big step beyond, for example, the healing gardens boasted by American hospitals that want to bill themselves as more progressive, holistic, green, and genuinely caring.

The Japanese government coined the term for forest bathing in 1982 — shinrin-yoku, defined as “making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest.” Inspired by ancient Buddhist and Shinto practices, it was a nondestructive way to use Japan’s forests, which cover two-thirds of the country, and to soothe a perpetually wired, frenetic society that has the third-highest suicide rate in the developed world. The government funnelled about $4 million into forest-bathing research between 2004 and 2012. Studies had already shown that hanging out in the woods benefits anxiety, depression, creativity, and cognition, but nobody really knew what was happening to the body on a molecular level.

Two scientists have shaped careers around coming up with an answer to this puzzle. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist at Chiba University, might be forest medicine’s biggest proponent. He’s studied the myriad effects of nature on the body, comparing nature walks versus city walks according to various measures of stress — biological markers like cortisol levels, sympathetic nervous system activity, blood pressure, heart rate — and subjective ratings of moods, anxiety, and depression. Florence Williams, author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, visited one of Miyazaki’s research stations in 2012, writing compellingly about her experience for Outside Magazine. As Miyazaki told her, “Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in natural environments. Our physiological functions are still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.” In short, because humans evolved in nature, it’s where our bodies feel most at ease, even if our minds don’t know it.

Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon University in Tokyo and chairman of the International Society of Forest Medicine, has also made some fascinating advances. Li’s work deals with identifying the individual natural components that make our bodies respond in such favorable ways. Li suspected that, in addition to the sight of nature, the scent of evergreens and other trees had a considerable role in the health benefits of forest bathing. He tested this by leaving subjects in hotel rooms with cypress aromatherapy, finding that their numbers of natural killer cells, which protect against infection and cancer, had similar increases with the simulated indoor “forest” and a visit to the real thing. Anyone up for a walk in the woods with some cypress aromatherapy tied around their neck?

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Aims of forest wellness absent, Detroit isn’t without significant arboreal attention. The Greening of Detroit has been reforesting the city for the past 25 years, planting over 81,000 trees. It sponsors plantings all over the city every few weeks, and residents can apply to plant trees in their neighborhoods with the Greening’s assistance. This helps, but it’s not meant to make a forest. Last week, Hantz farms did a massive tree planting over 20 acres on the east side, the beginnings of what will be Detroit’s first forest in a while.

Volunteers spent Saturday morning plugging 15,000 trees into pre-dug holes at a cost of about $20,000, an amount Hantz Farms expects it will take a long time, if ever, before the tree farm breaks even. The new saplings are white birch, bur and swamp white oaks, flowering dogwoods, and sugar maples. No cypress, no firs or pines, Hantz Farms? Too bad. There are plans to tap the maples for syrup when they come to a riper age. As part of their hopelessly controversial deal in purchasing the land from the city, they’re forbidden to sell anything, making the more traditional agriculture they had in mind unfeasible. Instead, the trees will beautify and be a showpiece for what is possible with a large-scale urban farm. Nice, huh? For now, there’s not a lot to look at. A video drone captured a disorienting view of the neat rows of holes in the ground.

How open to the public will the new woodlands be? Can visitors freely wander through the rows and admire the trees? Hantz Farms hopes that the soon-to-be majestic stands of white birches and flowering dogwoods will attract visitors to the neighborhood, “a place of beauty in the lower east side that people can go out of their way to see in the spring,” as president Mike Score said in a radio interview. Hopefully this will be more meaningful than just a slow drive through the streets, a parade of idling vehicles offsetting the good atmosphere generated by the trees. Hantz Farms has been glowing with praise from the immediate community, about 200 of whom were believed to have attended the tree planting. According to surveys, 94% of neighbors supported the project. That’s much better than recent outcries over the Greening of Detroit’s dendroremediation projects, where frustrated residents voiced fears of air pollution as contaminated soil was unearthed. As John Hantz told the Free Press on Saturday, “It’s really a community deal happening today,” he said. “How many more people are out walking now? This will be the first summer they can walk to church instead of drive because they feel safe.” Let’s hope this is what happens!

Paradoxically, other dreams for significant reforestation in Detroit have been regarded with little but skepticism. Encouraging the growth of a dense forest was suspected to result in more places for criminals, rapists, drug users, and other objectionable types to hang out. If open spaces deter crime, some of the homes adjacent to Hantz Farms’ woodland might be in trouble, situated immediately next to the new trees. Will the trees be equipped with security cameras? It’s a strange deal to live in a city that turns increasingly wild as the years ebb — the quiet woods a tradeoff for the peace of mind in living within easy sight of each other that urban neighbors expect. Whatever the eventual social outcome, at least, according to data from researchers like Miyazaki, Li, and others, it might do wonders for residents’ blood pressure.

Unplug and play

May 7, 2014

Hello from Screen-Free Week! Screen-Free Week is a collective effort to “spend seven days turning OFF digital entertainment* and turning ON life! It’s a time to unplug and play, read, daydream, create, explore nature, and spend time with family and friends. *work and school assignments not included.” I’m actually writing this on my Etch-a-Sketch, so it doesn’t count. Surely no one gets hit by a car Etch-a-Sketching while walking.

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The virtues of spending time without screens have made the news lately, for reasons beside the obvious or usual — obesity, heart disease, depression, other depressing conditions. Julia Filip, writing for the Atlantic, put together a tidy summary regarding the alarming worldwide increase in myopia. It’s not news, but in “Nearsightedness and the Indoor Life,” she suggests that we all get outside a bit more, reporting that between the 1970s and the turn of the century, myopia rates increased 66% among people between the ages of 12 and 54. The situation isn’t getting any less blurry. One quarter of people on the planet need glasses, a number that is forecasted to increase to a third by 2020 (futuristic as it sounds, that’s in just six years).

Much research is under way to find out why children need glasses at younger and younger ages, and what can mitigate the more serious longterm health risks that can arise from fuzzy vision. Filip talked with Dr. Maria Liu, head of the Myopia Control Clinic that opened last year at University of California, Berkeley. “The eyeballs are very adaptive while they are developing,” Liu explained. “If we impose a lot of near work on the eyes as they are developing, the eyes will interpret nearsightedness as being the normal state.” Filip writes,

Although modern lifestyle makes it harder to fight the disorder, there is something parents can do to prevent its early onset. “Increasing outdoor activities is a very strong protective factor for myopia,” Liu said. “Whether it is because hormonal levels are different outdoors, or because the light intensity is stronger, or because we do less close-up work, it has been shown consistently that outdoor activity is very protective and tends to slow the rate of progression.”

Taking breaks from myopia-inducing work every ten minutes and “looking in the distance” is also quaintly suggested. Last fall, Brian Palmer covered the subject for Slate, looking at studies comparing child development in Australia and Singapore and its impact on vision. Suspiciously, he notes that “small children look adorable in eyeglasses” — why do people like the sight of impaired kids so much? Maybe this early-onset myopia is a greater survival adaptation than we give it credit.

Palmer focuses on the outdoor aspect of the puzzle, saying that if near-work is really the culprit, it’s problematic for culture and education. Let kids be healthy and illiterate, or teach them to read and risk retinal detachment? “If the problem is just a matter of light intensity, however, you could send your child outside to read,” Palmer writes after reviewing some studies done with rhesus monkeys, who, you can bet, were not reading anything. Unable to suggest a solution, he goes on to cite statistics on childrens’ lost time outdoors.

What can we do? Lots! Screen-Free Week has a few relevant recommendations among their “essential handouts.” They look remarkably like living a normal life, but, perhaps, without stopping to text every three minutes. (Screens for communication are, however, permissible). Anybody want to go build a fort, taking care to include breaks every ten minutes to look into the distance?

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