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What adventures would ensue if we just opened the doors and let children out?

You’ve probably got one in the bathroom, bedroom or basement or perhaps tucked away in a closet. It’s that piece of exercise equipment, such as a treadmill or foldable “home gym,” that you thought would be the quickest route to a healthier you. Only now, it sees more action as a clothes hanger than it does as an aid to making you fitter.

I know you have one, because I do, too (my treadmill happens to be in an upstairs bathroom), and because lately doctors have noticed that most of us have some form of these devices and they aren’t doing us much good. One physician who was recently interviewed for an article in the Washington Post said that she’s heard anecdotally from many patients that while their BodyShaping Ab Blasters and Dura-Bands are gathering dust, it was the simple act of taking a walk that finally got them up and moving. So she began handing out “park prescriptions”: written orders that included the location of a local green space, the name of a specific trail and the exact mileage she wants her patients to cover.

Now doctors around the country are prescribing nature for their patients in order to prevent (or treat) a wide range of health problems, including heart disease, obesity and attention deficit disorder. Some even send people to wade across rivers or stroll on beaches.

I can’t help wondering, though, how much better we might feel if we upped those kinds of prescriptions from a daily dose of nature to a required amount of adventure.

Adventure: fighting muscular and mental attrition

A walk in nature lowered pulse rates and stress levels more than taking a walk on a city street. ©John T. Andrews

New studies are proving again and again that not only does nature give you the social and mental benefits of making you a nicer and happier person, partaking of it is physically good for you, too. A series of recent study results from Japan shows that taking a walk through the woods might protect you from the common cold and other viruses. It’s postulated that being exposed to phytoncides, aromatic oils with infection-fighting properties that certain trees emit, bestows immunity. In yet another Japanese study, it was found that participants had lower pulse rates and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after a short nature walk as opposed to taking a brief jaunt on a city street.

While getting a dose of nature may be as simple as stepping outside, there’s an extra element to having an adventure: most definitions of the word involve some variation of “accepting unknown risks”; “having a stirring experience” or “consenting to a wild and exciting undertaking.” If getting off the couch, going to a local park, and hitting the trails is a good first step, how much more could we improve our lives and health if we passed beyond the threshold of just experiencing nature outdoors to having an adventure in it? What if we now carried ourselves beyond the well-worn trails and frequently visited landmarks and iconic tourist stops? What if we could add to our good health not merely by the miles we walked and hours spent outdoors but by the number of unanticipated events we encountered and dealt with?

Perhaps some day in the future we’ll find that having an adventure fosters new synaptic connections that stave off Alzheimer’s. Or maybe we’ll discover that paddling an unknown sea not only enhances the strength of our arms but shortens our reaction time so much so that we suffer fewer bone breaks and hip fractures. Maybe we’ll learn that snorkeling in the Galapagos is the cure for migraines or hiking to the poles of the Earth strengthens the heart in more ways than one.

How much more would our health improve if we went beyond the well-worn trails? ©John T. Andrews

Adventure: good for adults and children

Of course, the new study results about the benefits of experiencing nature are not only relevant for the health of adults but for children, as well. A few years ago, the National Forum on Children and Nature—a group of mayors, professors, conservationists and business leaders—met in Washington, D.C., to discuss the disconnection between children and the outdoors. The conversation, inevitably, turned to statistics and numbers and the logistics of implementing budgeted programs. Some were looking for a “business model” to follow for introducing children to the natural world. Most saw the need for establishing other committees and conducting yet more research.

I wonder what would happen, though, if we, for once, forgot the business models, the organized after-school programs and trail guides and just opened the doors and let the kids out. Imagine the adventures that would ensue!

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy