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For fun, mental health and safe socializing, get outdoors!

For fun, mental health and safe socializing, get outdoors!

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It’s summer. We are tired of being cooped up, we’re cranky, and yet we want to be safe. Can we let the kids play with the neighbor’s kids? Can Grandma and Grandpa visit? Can we have friends over for a barbecue? How do we keep from going nuts?

We may be starting to reopen, but we are not in the clear just yet. We might take a cue from the people who study the spread of disease for a living. Over 500 epidemiologists responded to a survey in May asking when they personally expected to get back to a number of “normal activities,” assuming the pandemic and response unfold as they expect.

Here’s what they planned this summer:

Less than one-third of them expected to attend a small dinner party, send kids to school, camp or day care, work in a shared office, or send children on play dates. Twenty per cent or less expected to ride a subway or a bus, visit an elderly relative or friend in their home, exercise at a gym, eat at a dine-in restaurant, travel by airplane, go to a wedding or funeral, or attend a religious service. Over 50% don’t expect to stop wearing a face mask for a year or more.

Holy cabin fever! How do we socialize safely this summer? The answer, in one form or another, comes back to this: get outdoors.

What’s magic about the outdoors? Time outdoors may be magical, but it’s not a silver bullet. Heat and sun don’t kill the coronavirus, so face masks and distancing are still very important. However, according to health experts, the risk for coronavirus transmission is much lower outdoors. A comprehensive 2018 global study also found that “spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits,” like reducing the risk of several diseases, improving sleep and reducing stress. Combine outdoor time with physical activity, and you’ve got a double win. And you don’t have to do high-intensity cardio to get the benefit. Taking a walk or working in a garden counts.

What’s the big deal about gardens? Growing and preparing one's own food is not only healthy, economical and good exercise, it can give people a sense of control over their own well-being -- something we all seem to need right now. A major 2016 study found “robust evidence” for the positive effects of gardening on health, saying gardening can “improve physical, psychological and social health.”

Another study showed that children who participated in gardening projects scored higher in science achievement than those who did not. Scientists also say that playing in the dirt (which is pretty much what gardening means to kids) is actually good for children’s immune systems. Being exposed to a wide variety of normal microbes helps the immune system respond better to foreign substances. Check out the "Mowing to Growing" series on the LNKTV Health YouTube channel for great pointers on gardening.

And nowhere is better than the outdoors for kids to get aerobic exercise and gain coordination skills. Studies show that children burn more calories outdoors, helping to prevent obesity and strengthen bones and muscles.

What about socializing? How can you safely spend more time with others this summer? One way you could enjoy green space, physical activity and socializing with those outside your household is to play golf. As long as you maintain six feet of physical distance, don’t share clubs or a riding cart, and use hand sanitizer, swing away!

Don’t play golf? How about a camping trip? If each household group has their own tent, camping and cooking gear, you can gather around a campfire with the proper physical distance and enjoy some back-to-nature time at a campground or in your own backyard.

You can also meet up for a hike at three scenic locations within a short drive -- Platte River State Park, Mahoney State Park, and, of course, Pioneers Park Nature Center. Just remember to space out appropriately as you hike, wear a face mask in a crowd, and take hand sanitizer.

If you want to share a meal, the risk of spread is so much lower outdoors. Professor Paul Turner, microbiologist at Yale School of Medicine, says physical distancing is still very key. When he wants to share a meal with friends and family outside his household, they gather together in their backyards. They consider it a minor inconvenience to not share food, utensils and beverages, keep their hands clean and maintain a six-foot distance. It takes some extra prep time and arranging seating, but the social time is worth it, he says.

If you want to dine out, choose a restaurant that has outdoor seating with tables spaced at least six feet apart. Just be sure to wear a mask when interacting with your server or moving through a crowd.

So, don’t stay cooped up. Get active and social safely outdoors!

Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln (HealthyLincoln.org) and LNKTV Health (LNKTVhealth.lincoln.ne.gov) bring you "Health and the City," a monthly column that examines relevant community health issues and spotlights the local organizations that impact community wellness. Direct any questions or comments to jpearsonanderson@healthylincoln.org.

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