Dr. Bianca Garilli, ND
The subject of Vitamin N, or nature’s effects on health has had a resurgent in recent years as our society moves further and further away from a nature-centered lifestyle and, instead, moves into a more technologically based, indoor, sedentary daily routine. Research shows that a sedentary lifestyle consisting mainly of indoor activities has negative effects on our health, particularly that of our children. In fact, research is now indicating, that without dramatic changes, our children’s generation is poised to be the first in known human history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.1
Less time spent outdoors in nature results in less physical activity, less vitamin D synthesis, less sunlight exposure making way for a shift to an increase in screen time (TV, cell phones, tablets, computers, etc.), and more time exposed to indoor environmental pollutants and toxins. These habits are also commonly associated with an increase in higher-calorie, lower-nutrient dense diets that when combined with the above mentioned factors, support a sharp rise in chronic disease processes in children.
Statistics show the following:
Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period. In the short term, obesity in children increases the development of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, prediabetes, joint and bone problems, sleep apnea as well as experiencing negative social consequences including bullying and low self-esteem. In the long run, obesity is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, several types of cancers and osteoarthritis all of which clinicians are now seeing in their practices at higher rates and in younger patients than ever before.2 Diseases which have most commonly been relegated to the mature adult population are now being diagnosed in young adults, adolescents and even children.
The good news is that part of the solution to this epidemic might be as easy and inexpensive as adding a dose of Vitamin N to children’s daily routines.
Obesity and Vitamin N
There’s just something about being outdoors that the body and soul need to function at full potential. In the case of children classified as overweight or obese, time spent in natural, outdoor spaces may provide benefit in their overall health and wellness as is confirmed by various research studies. A 2013 study from Italy showed that children living in rural environments with more time spent outdoors in unstructured activities had lower rates of body fat than children living in urban or suburban environments.3
A separate publication entitled Using Nature and Outdoor Activity to Improve Children’s Health reports that, on average, kids 8-18 years of age spend 7.5 hours per day interacting with some form of “screen” time or listening to music on electronic devices. Increasing exposure and opportunities for children to interact and play routinely in green spaces reduces the amount of time spent on sedentary activities and increases the potential for higher levels of physical activity. More time spent outdoors has been shown to lead to a reduction in weight gain – a great prescription for reducing the incidence of chronic disease in children stemming from obesity and sedentary lifestyles.4,5
Exposure to green spaces within the residential environment and community has been linked to a reduction in all-cause mortality as indicated by a review conducted on over 40 million people in England between the years 2001-2005. The findings indicate that even those from socioeconomic disadvantaged backgrounds would benefit from a reduction in certain disease processes with routine green space exposure.6
To move, imagine, breathe deeply, build, create, interact with nature and get dirty – these are foundationally important pieces to improving health and wellness in children. Daily exposure to outdoor green areas should be interwoven into the fabric of a more comprehensive therapeutic program for children which includes a nutrition-dense eating plan, healthy sleep habits, reduction in stressful situations and engagement in nurturing relationships. The combination of these lifestyle habits are the building blocks for creating the best possible outcomes for future generations.
Here are a few ideas to increase your children’s exposure to Vitamin N and reduce their risk of common place 21st century chronic diseases:
- Take an evening stroll or bike ride before starting homework or after dinner. Use routes which offer plenty of opportunity for being in green spaces.
- Add a small garden to your back porch, balcony or yard. Let your children dig, plant and take care of small seeds and plants. Teach them to cook with and eat what they grow.
- Place children’s study areas where green spaces are visible. If this is not possible, add plants and small nature-based items to the study space.
- On long weekends and holidays get away from the city and head to the mountains, the desert, the lake, the ocean, anywhere that nature abounds. Don’t plan every moment, let parts of the trip unfold as they happen.
- For shorter trips, visit local farms, community gardens, botanical gardens, Community Supported Agriculture and “U-Pick” locations.
- Let them get their feet and hands into sand, mud, dirt, snow and water when in a safe and natural environment.
- Encourage imaginative, unstructured outdoor play. Offer kids some old sheets, blankets and let them go to work creating cities, forts, castles and other play structures.
- Allow your children the opportunity to jump in piles of leaves, climb trees, collect bugs, run through puddles, make mud pies, and otherwise, just be kids.
“Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.”
- Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., et al. “A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century.” N Engl J Med. March 2005. 352:1138-1145.
- CDC: Childhood Obesity Facts. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm Accessed on December 10, 2014.
- Donatiello, E. et al. “Physical activity, adiposity and urbanization level in children: results for the Italian cohort of the IDEFICS study.” Public Health. 2013 Aug;127(8):761-5.
- McCurdy LE, et al. “Using Nature and Outdoor Activity to Improve Children’s Health; Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent health care.” Volume 40, Number 5, May 2010.
- Cleland V, et al. “A prospective examination of children’s time spent outdoors, objectively measured physical activity and overweight.” Int J Obes (Lond). 2008 Nov;32(11):1685-93.
- Mitchell R, Popham F. “Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study.” Lancet 2008;372:1655-60.
Dr. Garilli is a former US Marine turned Naturopathic Doctor. She runs a private practice in Folsom, California where she specializes in treating and preventing chronic disease states through a personalized lifestyle approach including nutrition, exercise, botanical medicine and homeopathy.
In addition to private practice, she consults with nutritional supplement companies and integrative medical clinics on case studies, professional consultations and educational program development. Dr. Garilli is a member of the faculty at Hawthorn University and a founding board member for the CA Chapter of the Children’s Heart Foundation. Dr. Garilli lives in Northern California with her husband, children and four backyard chickens.