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Sheltering in place? Go outside!

Anthony Brown is shown with 5-month-old Smyth Brown in Folger Park on Capital Hill. (Tiffany Gillis Brown)

By Breyanna Dabney (Perry Hall High School), Madeleine Voth (Duke Ellington School of the Arts) & Amaya Murillo

Henry David Thoreau once said, “nature is but another name for health.” The reclusive 19th-century philosopher believed that a little sunlight could go a long way in preserving body and mind.

That's especially true in a stressful time like the Covid-19 pandemic.

Just sitting on your porch or taking a walk can be good for your health, physical and mental. A 2019 study in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research found that spending as little as 20 minutes in a park is beneficial, especially in easing stress and anxiety.

New father Anthony Brown is a believer in this. He has been home in Washington with his wife and child since Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a stay-at-home order beginning April 1st.

“With all the demands of work and trying to balance working full time and having a 4-month-old, and dealing with all the anxiety and stress that comes along with it," he says, "it’s very helpful to be able to go outside and do something as cathartic and therapeutic as running.”

Public health experts agree.

“Green space is good for mental health. The ability to get out and explore nature is soothing and really helps us think,” says Georges Benjamin, a physician who is executive director of the American Public Health Association. “It's about getting into a space where your brain functions at a different level. It brings together all the senses that we often neglect that are fundamental for human well-being and mental development."

Capt. Sara Newman, a physician who is director of the Office of Public Health at the National Park Service, says the benefits are mental and physical.

“Both being outside and exercising have powerful impacts on mental health,” Newman says. "Exercising outside also allows for better concentration, and people are more likely to do it longer," she says. And outdoor exposure can be less hazardous. “Not only does it allow for better social distancing measures but other research has shown that the virus dies within 3 minutes of being in the sun.”

After months of staying indoors to avoid the coronavirus, people are slipping outside when the walls start to close in.

“Being at home for long periods of time makes me feel like there is a disconnect from the world and me," says Lisa Scelsi, administrative coordinator in the Office of Advancement Services at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore City. "I’ve spent some time outside. Just sitting out on my back patio has allowed me to keep my mind clear and relaxed with everything going on. Mentally and physically, it's helped me to stay inside. Just knowing that I have that sense of independent freedom to go out if I want has helped me keep my sanity."

A 2013 study in The British Journal of Psychiatry found the more time people spend outdoors, the more positive their thoughts and emotions. It also said people who go outdoors have more of an “awareness of spiritual relaxation,” meaning they are more in tune with themselves, which is good for mental and even physical well being. Another study in the psychiatry journal found that being outdoors encourages physical activity.

“Thankfully, I have an essential job that requires me to be outside," says Jason Fuentes, facilities manager at Baltimore City public schools.

“Right now I’m really missing just being able to go out, have fun and meet new people," he says. "Whether I’m working or whatever, I’m out and engaged in something. I think being on the go and outside helps with my mental health by keeping me filled with good stress and just energy to do what I have to do." "Going outside and having freedom allows me to keep my sanity."

Last year, the National Parks Service celebrated the 400th anniversary of African American history and slavery with the release of a documentary and companion guide to explore Black Americans’ “collective heritage, through the lens of national parks.” NPS also wanted to bring diverse communities together, especially African Americans “help show how parks can positively impact their health too,” said Subria Spencer, a producer on the film

No one as to tell that to Brown. He and wife Tiffany and baby Symth continue to walk together several times a week. Brown, who works at the Small Business Administration, runs once or twice a week and said he’s lucky to live near a variety of parks including Folger Park on Capitol Hill, Anacostia Park and Fort Dupont Park.

“I find it very peaceful to be in nature,” said Brown. “I can unwind, reflect and I find I can be one with my thoughts.”


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