- - Sunday, August 5, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Culture challenge of the week: Indoor captives

One beautiful day last week, I drove past the bright new gym that opened nearby. It’s two stories, with glass walls, the latest equipment, and perky personal trainers. I glimpsed rows of adults in motion, on treadmills, ellipticals and stair-steppers. Somewhere in the back, undoubtedly, others hefted free weights or strained for personal bests on the weight machines.

I couldn’t help but think, “C’mon outside. It’s a beautiful day!”

One of my neighbors recently voiced a similar thought. “No one’s outside anymore. Where is everyone?”

Inside.

We’ve become an indoor culture, fueled, in part, by technology’s irresistible pull. Jogging a park path doesn’t offer second-by-second feedback on calories burned, metabolic rates, or exact distance covered (unless you’re wearing a sophisticated sports watch).

Kids don’t roam neighborhoods on bikes or play kickball in open spaces anymore. Sometimes that’s because parents worry it’s not safe to let their kids play outside. Often, however, it’s because our children — like us adults — are captives of the technology culture, plugged into electronics for the better part of the day. (I remember one little boy I saw at a park, head bent over his handheld electronic game. There he sat, unwilling to break off his game and join his sister on the slide, until it was time to leave.)

Our time indoors accumulates, not only because we feel the need to be socially connected, but also because we erroneously assume technology will enhance nearly every experience or task we undertake. Feel like reading? Surely it’s an experience better enjoyed with an e-reader. Need to exercise? Can’t do without the digital feedback found at the gym. Reaching out to friends? Chats, texts, tweets and Facebook are way cooler than making a phone call or meeting in person. And most of these things we prefer to do indoors (after all, sunlight makes it hard to read most screens).

Is this really a human way to live?

Most of us sense that, deep inside, it’s more satisfying to see others face to face and, similarly, to experience the natural beauty of God’s creation in person rather than from a picture or video. We’ve all seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, but we don’t stand in hushed awe before those pictures or gush about them over cocktails. But standing on the canyon floor — experiencing in person the canyon’s great beauty — renders us speechless and creates a lasting memory.

We know intuitively that being outdoors is good for the soul.

Turns out it’s good for the mind and body, too.

How to save your family: Get outside

Researchers have found that turning your face from glowing screens to the natural light of the sun has more benefits than you think.

A research team at the University of Essex found that exercise in natural environments (e.g. in parks, near water, along tree-lined streets), even for as little as five minutes, improves “self-esteem and mood.”

Similarly, a recent study by researchers at Glasgow University in Scotland demonstrated that people suffering from mild depression and anxiety showed 50 percent more improvement when they exercised outdoors instead of in a gym. Why? The natural environment helped lessen stress chemicals in the body and increased feelings of calm and tranquillity.

It makes sense. Walking just five minutes in a park invites us to slow down, enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, and think. Five minutes on a treadmill, at a machine-driven, relentless pace, doesn’t have quite the same effect. (And sometimes it does the opposite and creates a frenzied, hamster-on-a-wheel feeling!)

Children, especially those with concentration or mood disorders, benefit from outdoor activity as well. In his book, “Last Child in the Woods,” best-selling author Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit” to describe the typical deprivation of our plugged-in children. He marshals convincing evidence that children benefit greatly from spending time with nature, whether actively exploring or just “being there.” Improvements in mood and concentration, and lower rates of depression and hyperactivity are a few of the benefits he cites.

So, America, let’s get outside. Take a walk, go for a hike, stroll through a garden or plant your own. (Kids love digging in dirt. Add a little water and, yes, you’ll have a mess, but you’ll also spur their creativity.) Play sports and walk the dog. Yes, it’s hot out there, but you can beat the heat with early-morning or sunset activities.

Experience the great, beautiful world God gave us, and I promise you’ll reap the benefits of a happier, healthier family, too.

• Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@howtosaveyourfamily.com.

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