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Want healthier children? Send them outside to play

American children are busier than ever. Between tutoring, over-scheduled after-school activities, and the addictive lure of video games and smart phones, children spend half as much time playing outside than their parents did. Kids today play outside an average of a dismal 4 hours a week, compared to 8 hours when their parents were children. Sadly, lack of play time robs children of important developmental and health benefits. Humans are actually designed to grow based on plenty of play time (adults too!).

Two of the most important ingredients for beneficial childhood play are the outdoors and boredom. Though it can feel temporarily nightmarish to the child, boredom is great for the developing child brain — it forces children to employ their own agency, creativity, and, if other children are present, collaboration.

Why play is vital to childhood development

Free play develops social, emotional, and academic foundations that will server children later in life. It improves emotional intelligence and the ability to self-regulate. It also helps children learn about themselves, what they’re good at, and what they like to do.

Some industry experts argue that the qualities developed through free play will be what gives those children an edge in a world increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence and robots. Free play encourages compassion, creativity, complexity, and dexterity — skills that will always set humans apart from robots.

Also, health experts argue that lack of sufficient free play is contributing to the explosion of depression and other mental disorders in children. Depression is rising fastest among teens and young adults. Free play develops self-directed life-coping skills in kids that they don’t get in a violin lesson or soccer practice.

For children to fully enjoy the developmental aspects of free play, there is one thing parents must do: stay out of it. “Successful” childhood play is self-motivated by the child, as well as fun, engaging, and free of the normal rules of life.

Several categories of healthy child’s play have been identified:

Imaginative play. This includes drawing, painting, sculpting, and playing with water. Imaginative play is necessary to develop creativity, self-expression, communication, and experimentation with reality.

Building. Kids love to build stuff out of whatever materials available, whether it’s Legos, rocks, or sticks. Building play develops fine motor skills, reasoning skills, resilience (because these structures always collapse), and problem-solving.

Physical play. This is the kind of play that makes harried moms send their kids outdoors in order to protect the furniture. Rough housing, wrestling, play fighting, and other forms of physical play develop gross motor skills, physical fitness, perseverance, and memory.

Dramatic play. Some of the most engrossing forms of childhood play are the elaborate dramas, play acting, dress up, and shows that kids create. This form of play develops emotional regulation, relationship skills, empathy, cooperation, and negotiation.

Nature: A vital ingredient to childhood play

In addition to allowing children the space to transition through boredom into play, the outdoors is another vital ingredient to healthy childhood play.

Between addictive digital lures, overscheduled afterschool activities, and helicopter parenting, children today spend less time outdoors than do maximum security prisoners. This is tragic.

Harvard Medical School has identified these reasons children need to spend ample time outdoors:

Sunshine. Regular exposure to sunshine is necessary for human health to regulate the sleep-wake cycle and hormonal system, prevent mood disorders, and promote healthy immune function and bone growth.

Exercise. Children should exercise an hour a day. Free play outdoors better encourages this.

Healthy risk taking. Taking risks is an important part of free play, despite parental fear. Healthy risk taking during outdoor play helps children build good life skills and confidence.

Socialization. Socialization is one of the most important factors in good health. Letting kids play outside gives them the opportunity to meet other kids and develop social skills.

Appreciation of nature. Many studies point to the health benefits of time spent in nature. Letting children have unstructured play time among trees, dirt, streams, and other natural features instills a lifelong appreciation of nature.

It used to be parents sent their kids outside to play to get them out of their hair. These days, parents must contend with pushback from kids who would rather play video games or do other online activities indoors. Parents too must unplug long enough to enforce some digital-free outdoors play time — in all kinds of weather. Kids act like boredom is going to kill them, but if you let them see it through chances are they’ll eventually engage their innate resources for unstructured play.

 

 

 

 

 

Exercise turns back the clock on older hearts

Our muscles stiffen as we age, including the heart muscles. However, a new study showed that middle aged adults who took up moderate- to high-intensity exercise developed the heart flexibility of someone 15 to 20 years younger. But there is a sweet spot in midlife for this to work. Similar studies on 70-year-olds did not produce the same results.

Going into midlife with a sedentary lifestyle causes the heart to stiffen, shrink, and become less efficient at pumping blood and oxygenating the body. As a result, people develop shortness of breath, fatigue, edema, coughing, and other symptoms of heart disease.

For the two-year study, researchers tracked more than 50 volunteers who ranged in age from 45 to 64. They were healthy but sedentary. The participants were divided into two groups.

The first group did non-aerobic exercise three days a week, including basic yoga, balance training, and weight training.

The second group did moderate- to high-intensity aerobic exercise four days a week. Compared to the first group, this group saw dramatic improvements in their heart health.

Their hearts became noticeably more flexible and could process oxygen more efficiently. One researcher in the study said they were able to take a 50-year-old heart and turn back the clock to a 30- or 35-year-old heart.

These participants became stronger and fitter overall because their more flexible hearts were able to fill with more blood and pump more blood to the rest of their bodies during exercise.

The group who did the non-aerobic exercise three days a week saw no change in their heart flexibility or efficiency.

Interval training is key to a healthier heart

The key to the study subjects’ dramatic heart health improvement wasn’t just aerobic exercise, but aerobic exercise that incorporates interval training — short bursts of high intensity with short rests in between.

Although there are many ways to do high-intensity intervals, the study subjects did “4X4” training: four minutes at 95 percent of maximum ability followed by three minutes of active recovery, done four times.

The magic lies in pushing the heart to near its maximum ability, which forces it to work harder and pump more blood.

However, the window for this magic apparently closes if you wait too long. People in their mid-forties to early sixties still have flexible enough heart tissue to effect dramatic results. Once you are older, your blood vessels may be too rigid.

Interval training excellent for the aging brain

People who take up interval aerobic training typically report overall increased well being and feeling happier.

When the brain receives more blood flow and oxygen from a healthier heart, its function improves too. Also, interval training releases a number of hormones and neurochemicals that boost brain performance, improve mood, and lower inflammation.

For instance, endorphins released during exercise not only make people feel happier, they also dampen inflammation.

High-intensity interval training also boosts brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a brain chemical necessary for the formation of memories and for learning and recall, important qualities to hang onto as we age.

People with sedentary lifestyles may feel daunted by the idea of high-intensity workouts. Luckily there are many options for guided workouts these days. For instance, Orange Theory Fitness is a chain of gyms around the country that show you your heart rate on a large monitor during guided workouts so you can begin to learn what sort of exertion is required to get your heart rate up to its near maximum.

Although it’s important to push your heart, it’s also important not to overdo your exercise routines. Over exercising raises inflammation and can trigger or exacerbate chronic inflammatory or autoimmune conditions. However, when you exercise within a healthy range, exercise has anti-inflammatory effects.

Greenwich Integrative

Why a “biological clock” discovery is worth a Nobel Prize

 

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to researchers for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms that control circadian rhythm, our biological “clock.” This sleep-wake cycle helps us move between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals, and regulates important functions such as:

  • Behavior
  • Sleep
  • Mood
  • Immunity
  • Brain function
  • Hormone levels
  • Metabolism

Although we’ve long known the circadian rhythm exists, the Nobel laureates isolated the gene that controls it and identified the proteins that govern its cyclical function.

The importance of healthy circadian rhythm

Humans are similar to other animals in that our internal clocks are set to the rising and setting of the sun. A healthy sleep-wake cycle is critical for many aspects of our health. Circadian rhythm imbalances increase risk for heart disease, obesity, mood disturbances, diabetes, cancer, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

Despite the circadian rhythm’s intuitive design, our modern lives tend to sabotage its critical balance. Some disruptive factors can’t be avoided while others can, but for most we have the tools to minimize the negative effects.

Daylight savings wrecks the biological clock each year

Daylight savings time changes throw a kink in our daily rhythm. The time change is minimal, but studies show rates of driving fatalities, workplace injuries, suicides, and heart attacks rise after the spring-forward change. And night owls take the longest to recover.

Prepare for daylight savings time by shifting your bedtime and waking time a bit every day the week before.

Traveling across time zones

Everyone laments how jet lag can wipe you out. Jet lag occurs when the time of day doesn’t line up with your body’s clock. Crossing two time zones should take you about a day of readjustment; crossing six could take three days or more. But beware; chronic time zone jumping can lead to a suppressed immune system, chronic fatigue, and memory issues.

Plan ahead by moving your body’s time clock toward the destination time zone during the week before.

Hydrate before and during the trip.

Choose a flight that gets to your destination in early evening and stay up only until 10 p.m. local time. If you arrive early and are exhausted, take a two-hour nap but no longer.

Once at your destination, expose yourself to the sun’s rays to help your body sync up with the new time zone.

Poor sleep habits

Twenty percent of the population is estimated to sleep too little (less than 6 hours a night); this can lead to changes in genes that regulate stress, our immune system, sleep-wake cycles, inflammation, and aging. Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, stress, inflammation, dementia, and depression.

The CDC says insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic and research has established that the constant exposure to blue light from electronic devices is a major culprit.

Blue light and screen time

Changes in the levels of the hormone melatonin in your body are what make you fall asleep. During a normal day, morning light stimulates the body to decrease your melatonin level, promoting wakefulness, then as the day darkens, melatonin increases to encourage sleep.

However, adults and children disrupt this cycle by using smart phones and tablets late into the night. This can cause chronic insomnia because the blue light these devices emit is perceived by our brains as daytime light, which suppresses melatonin and keeps us awake.

Minimize blue screen time. Read a book instead. Turn off all screens (phone included) two hours before bed. If you can’t do that, get a pair of orange safety glasses.

Improper daytime and nighttime light exposure

Proper patterns of light exposure during the day are a major factor affecting how well we sleep.

Start each day with as much bright light as possible. Eat breakfast with as many lights on as possible to stimulate serotonin production, which helps melatonin production later in the day.

Get light during the day at home and work. Open the shades; turn on all the lights (try full-spectrum); sit by a window and look out often; take a walk outside during your breaks.

Minimize light in the evening by dimming or turning off unnecessary lights. Put orange bulbs in lamps you use at night, especially next to your bed and for reading. This helps to jump start melatonin production in preparation for sleep.

Lack of sunlight

Patterns of light during the day aren’t the only way light affects our circadian rhythm; exposure to actual sunlight is key for healthy function of the body and brain.

Research shows the average person spends less than an hour a day outside. Shift workers spend even less time outdoors. Lack of exposure to sunlight inhibits production of melatonin, affecting sleep and potentially affecting our ability to produce Vitamin D, key for bone health, mood regulation, and immune function.

Get direct sunlight every day. If you can’t get outside, use a quality light box early in the day.

Go sunglasses-free even for just 10–15 minutes, to provide beneficial sunlight exposure to your eyes and brain.

Respecting our body’s natural rhythm

Your body’s innate sleep cycle is largely controlled by the amount and pattern of light and dark you are exposed to each day. By managing the lifestyle factors that disrupt your circadian rhythm, you will support your body’s ability to function well and stay healthy. For help with sleep issues, please contact my office.