Two Hours in Nature

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

We are bombarded online with advice on how to be healthier and happier. I just read recently that coffee is not bad for me. In fact, it can reduce my risk of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart disease, increase my short-term focus and endurance and increase your life span. Talk about a wonder drug.

Of course, research next year may say the opposite about coffee.

But a new research study about spending time in nature is one that I will accept no matter what the next study finds.

It comes from the University of Exeter and was published in the journal Scientific Reports. It uses data from 20,000 people, so this is no little study in a lab with 20 people.

This survey asked participants how much time they spent in “open spaces in and around towns and cities, including parks, canals and nature areas; the coast and beaches; and the countryside including farmland, woodland, hills, and rivers” in the past week. They also asked about their health and wellbeing.

This study found that people who had spent two hours or more in nature the previous week displayed “consistently higher levels of both health and well-being than those who reported no exposure.”

Two hours.

The participants who had spent little or no time in parks, beaches or woods in the past seven days, close to half reported low levels of life satisfaction and one in four said they were in poor health.

What about spending more than two hours out in nature? Oddly, there were diminishing returns.

Some interpretations have considered that the health benefits might be a byproduct of physical activity, exposure to sunlight and not contact with nature.

I was surprised, as were the researchers, that it did not matter whether the two hours in nature were taken in one session or in a series of shorter visits. It also didn’t seem to matter whether people went to an urban park, woodlands or the beach.

I have written here about nature deficit disorder  and forest bathing and the benefits of just being in nature in all its forms.

Two hours a week in nature doesn’t sound like a difficult thing to achieve in order to be healthier in mind and body. But isn’t an attainable target for everyone.

Articles online point out that it would be difficult for people with disabilities. In the most urban of areas, there may not even be a nearby woods, a patch of green space or park. And even if some nature is available, some people don’t seem to be able to find the time – though I find that a flimsy excuse if you only need to accomplish a total of two hours per week.  That’s only a bit more than 15 minutes a day. Coffee or lunch break?

The idea of spending time in nature for your health is not at all new, and I find examples of some interesting nature prescriptions regularly. In the Shetland Islands (UK), they are prescribed to visit seabird colonies, build woodland dens or simply appreciate the shapes of clouds.

Eco-therapy in New Zealand produced improvements after six months in two-thirds of patients given green prescriptions.  By gardening or working on conservation projects they were happier, lost weight and even seemed to be helped with mild to moderate depression.

Still, the takeaway from that new study is that if you can just get two hours in some kind of natural place per week, you’re going to benefit.

Green Childhood, Happier Adulthood

forest trees woods

On this Mothers’ Day, I am remembering my mother, now gone 8 years. I believe my childhood might be considered tough by other people’s standards. My father had a serious illness and died much too young. My sister was born with mental and learning issues. We were certainly lower-middle-class. I was forced into adulthood by circumstances at age 11. But my mother was always there, and my overall memory of childhood  – those first 10 years and especially the summers – is of many good days.

Though I lived in a very urban, densely populated town in New Jersey, there were pockets of green in my neighborhood and green places that I could escape to on my bicycle.

From our backyard garden of vegetables and the apple, peach and plum trees, to the front rock garden full of my mother’s flowers, I felt surrounded by nature.

I am convinced that the greenish light, the smells of soil and herbs and flowers, and learning about plants and trees had a powerful effect on my life. Our dog, our rabbits, even the salamanders, turtles and safe snakes that I temporarily had as pets and then released to their real homes made me feel connected to what we later called the “web of life.”

So, I am not surprised when I read articles that confirm that researchers believe that a greener childhood is associated with a happier adulthood.

I have written here before about related topics such as forest bathing and the healing effects of the forest.

Being in my current little garden in the backyard, walking through the nearby smallish woods or a local park with a tiny creek and pond are still ways that I slow down time and immerse in nature.

Of course, I love getting out into a big forest or on a tropical island, but those experiences are out of my ordinary life. And so, I cling to those same islands of green that fascinated me as a child and offered me refuge as a teenager in a troubled home.

park bridge

Green spaces are shrinking. Scientists are still studying the association between green spaces and mental health. I’m glad that research shows that growing up around green (vegetation) is associated with a significantly lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood. But I knew that.

Other studies seem to indicate that a lack of green space increases the risk of mood disorders and schizophrenia and can even affect cognitive development.

The green of my childhood couldn’t prevent my father’s illness or my sister’s cognitive development, but it helped me. I don’t want to overstate the power of green spaces. One of the scientists in those studies cautions that studies have limitations: and some of the findings are correlational. They can’t definitively say that growing up near green space reduces risk of mental illness.

Many questions remain. Would a forest have more impact than a park? Are positive effects evolutionary or cultural? Can the effects be physiological as well as psychological? Maybe having more green spaces around us simply encourage social interaction and exercise, both of which improve mood. Does a decrease in air, water and noise pollution have a positive impact on mental health?

My non-scientist mother maintained that exposure to the dirt (a wider diversity of microbes) would make me healthier. Mom knew.

Getting Into a Flow State


Having just come back from a vacation, I thought about the idea of being in a kind of blissful flow state. What is this state of flow? The term comes from positive psychology. A colloquial term for this state is being “in the zone,” when you feel completely immersed in a task, with complete concentration but also enjoyment in the task. It may seem wonderful or frightening that it also means you lose track of your surroundings, and even time. “Where did the time go?” up may wonder after being in this state – and that is a good loss of time, not a wasted two hours of your life. On my vacation, there were several time when not having looked at a clock (or even had one available) I realized that hours had pleasantly passed as I was snorkeling or walking the beach looking for shells. But while losing track of time may be part of the flow state, the flow state is not present whenever we lose our sense of time. There was no flow state in my snorkeling or walk; I was just distracted and focused on other things.

Experiments that I have read about make the process seem rather cold and analytical, but there is a good possibility that you have been in a flow state quite naturally. If so, then the goal would be to be able to achieve it again by choice.

The term “hyperfocus” seems related to flow but actually can be seen as the opposite state. Hyperfocus is an intense mental concentration but in a way that can distract from other tasks, such as when someone is hyperfocused while playing videogames. Some things I have read consider this to be a symptom of ADHD.

You can also find articles that relate flow to form of meditation because of the intense and focused concentration on the present moment and future commitments and past events fall away.

But this doesn’t have to be sitting-on-cushion kind of focus and action and awareness can merge in a way that actions feel like an extension of mind.

You often hear about losing your self-consciousness or awareness of ourselves which is useful for feeling less self-critical.

People who study this flow or experience it for themselves will recognize hat this letting go of personal control over the situation or activity can also be viewed as frightening to some people.

Part of reward of being in the flow state is not some result of our actions. There was no result or product from my snorkeling or walking, but the intrinsic reward came from performing the task.

It may also seem frightening that we might forget about other needs. You may forget to drink, eat, or about others around us.

But again, this is not a monk-on-a rock focus. It often happens to athletes, or an artist working on their piece. It can benefit performance. The flow state allows for the release of dopamine, which not only makes us “feel good” but enhances things like pattern recognition, attention and the ability to dismiss distractions.

Being in a flow state “accidentally” is good, but better is to able to create that state when needed or desired. I had listened a few years ago to an audiobook by Nathan DeWall who is a psychology professor who studied self-control as a way to achieve flow. He had suggestion on how to develop that self-control.

Setting goals, especially a series of smaller ones, helps. If you want to write that novel, setting a daily word count goal is one way to start. You also need to have a way to monitor your goals.

He notes that because our energy fluctuates throughout the day, so does our willpower, so we will have more self-control and willpower when we have more energy. You need to find when your energy level peaks and use that.

A perhaps counterintuitive suggestion is to push yourself a bit out of your comfort zone so that both body and mind are better about adapting to more challenging environments.

Whether it is playing tennis, painting or writing poetry, to experience the flow, you need the knowledge and skills to complete a task. You’re not going to be a better tennis player just because you focus on being better.

Unfortunately, flow states are easier to achieve when we feel the task is purposeful. If we feel connected and passionate about something, attention comes easier. It will be harder (maybe impossible) to make reading a dozen financial reports and summarizing them in the office today turn into a flow state. Still, you may be able to find ways of making it important – it will help your job performance or it will free up your weekend.

Reward is the last part of the state of flow, but it is also a starting place because it will motivate you. You need to see some reward for your efforts. It certainly does not need to be a “real” reward (for example, money) but it needs to be something that is personally worthwhile.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

A recent study says that I drink too much coffee per day. Another article I read says that researchers now say eating a few eggs is not healthy. I can find articles from a year or two ago that say the opposite; my coffee would be helping me and those eggs were the perfect food. I feel like everything I know is wrong because they keep changing what is right.

It’s one thing to just believe something to be true because you got the wrong information from someone (maybe in school, maybe online) but it’s different when “they” change the answers.

There is a book titled The Book of General Ignorance which has the subtitle “Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong.” Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the globe. Baseball was invented in America. Henry VIII had six wives. Mount Everest is the tallest mountain? Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

You may be disappointed to learn that chameleons don’t change color to match the background (it’s more of a mood ring kind of thing) or that a centipede does not have a hundred legs. You assumed that a two-toed sloth has two toes, but it’s either six or eight.

Some of those things I had learned incorrectly along the way. Maybe I was told these “facts” by someone who believed them to be true. There are plenty of things  I never learned right or wrong, so the information is new. I didn’t know that Honolulu is the world’s largest city. That may because it wins based on a technicality – 72% of its 2,127 square miles is underwater.

I am more disturbed by the scientific research kinds of facts that seem to keep flipping. Chocolate and red wine: Good or bad for your health? Depends on when the research was done.

Entire books probably get knocked off the shelf as new research proves them to be incorrect. Take a book like The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain By Dr. Steven R Gundry M.D. This neuro-nutrition book was marked as the “most read” book on Amazon, at one point with 2000+ 4 and 5-star reviews.

It is one of those books that tells you what you know is wrong. You were eating more plants and less meat because that’s the healthy way to go. Right?

This book clues you in on highly toxic, plant-based proteins called lectins. Are they hiding in some strange foods? No, they are in grains like wheat but also in the “gluten-free” foods and many fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and conventional dairy products. These proteins are found in the seeds, grains, skins, rinds, and leaves of plants. Why are they there? They are nature’s way of protecting plants from predators. Humans are plant predators too, I suppose. We’re not talking about genetically modified foods (though the book isn’t happy with those either).

What do they do to us? Like so many other things, they do chemical things in our guts that cause inflammatory reactions (inflammation being the current cause of almost all the evil in your body), and can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions. The book has spawned cookbooks and other guides, but some of its suggestions are simple to follow.

Peel your veggies. And here I thought the skin and seeds of plants were good for you, but that’s where a lot of those lectins are hiding. It saddens me to peel and de-seed my beloved tomatoes to reduce their lectin content. Fruit contain fewer lectins when ripe, so eat your apples and berries at peak ripeness.

Remember how you were told to swap that white rice for the healthier brown rice? Okay, flip that swap.
Swap your brown rice for white again because whole grains and seeds with hard outer coatings are full of lectins.

Does everyone agree with this science. Of course not. In fact, I suspect that as soon as a book like this is published, several other authors start working on the opposite theories for another book.


Spirulina is a blue-green algae that can be consumed by humans and other animals. It is cultivated worldwide as two species (Arthrospira platensis and A. maxima)  and used as a dietary supplement or whole food. It is often used as a feed supplement for animals and more recently it has found a growing place in human food preparations.

Its appeal comes from several of its qualities. It is an ecologically sound, sustainable, nutrient-rich, dietary supplement. It is used to address food security, malnutrition, and as dietary support for dieters, athletes and even as a part of long-term space flights like the Mars missions. It requires less land and water requirements to produce high quality protein and energy.

I first encountered spirulina in a family wedding’s welcome bag. It contained some spirulina in a form called Crunchlina from the company SoulFresh Proteins (formerly SunFresh Proteins). It turned out that the owners were related to the bride, so I got to meet them at the event.

They grow/farm spirulina year round to make products and also forms that can be added to beverages, salads, cereals, sauces, baked goods and toppings.

Before I consumed the Crunchlina, I did some research. Let’s face it, if you ask people if they want to taste some blue-green algae, I don’t think you will get a lot of takers.  There are other sources of protein, such as insects, that are also sustainable, but they are all a tough sale.

One scary fact I found online is that there is some questionable spirulina in the market that comes from some questionable producers. A lot of the bad stuff comes from outside the United States (China, India) and the spirulina is then stored and shipped over long periods of time that destroys the nutrient value. That algae is also grown and shipped using environmentally unfriendly methods. This means that what is sold is unreliable and providing little or no nutritional value. In the worst situations, the product can be harmful.

And that is why I have stayed with products from SoulFresh which is produced in Rhode Island, USA. Their founder came from the agriculture world producing refined vegetable oils to bakeries, restaurants and food product manufacturers. Their Agcore Technologies has been around since 2013. Their original goal was to grow a high protein alga that could be used in human and animal nutrition. (BTW, alga is the singular; algae is the plural. Good trivia fact)  Their research found non-GMO spirulina to be the best choice. The challenge was to grow the blue-green alga in their cool New England climate. The coolness also has an advantage as growers closer to the Equator have to shut down in hot summer months.

It is grown in greenhouses that use the Sun for photosynthesis, rather than artificial lightning. They harvest daily, dry at low temperatures, and provide a very fresh and optimal product.

Cyanobacteria (Cyanophyta, a phylum of bacteria) obtain their energy via sunlight through photosynthesis. The name cyanobacteria comes from the color of the bacteria via the Greek word kyanós means “blue.” They are more commonly referred to as “blue-green algae”

It has been on Earth for a long time. We know that spirulina was a food source for the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans. They would harvest it from Lake Texcoco in Mexico. They would dry it and make into small cakes. Cortés’ soldiers knew of it by the Aztec word “tecuitlatl.”

Spirulina fell away as a food source as those ancient people were pushed into civilization and the draining of their surrounding lakes for agriculture and urban development. Tecuitlalt/spirulina seems to have disappeared from human use or study until the mid-20th century when French phycologist Pierre Dangeard mentioned a cake called “dihe” that was consumed by the Kanembu tribe in Africa. The tribe harvested it from Lake Chad and surrounding small ponds much in the way that the Aztecs did. The dihe was studied and found to be a dried purée of the spring form of the blue-green algae, and it was being combined used in broths, sauces and other foods. In the 1960s, botanists confirmed that dihe is made up of spirulina.

An accidental bloom of algae in a chemical production facility led to a very systematic and detailed study of spirulina. After publishing about the growth requirements and physiology of spirulina, one effect was . the start of large-scale production in the 1970s.

I use their CrunchLina as an energy snack but usually use it as I would use granola in yogurt, salads and cereals. The spirulina is blended with a variety of good stuff like Vermont maple syrup, cashews, pecans, sunflower seeds, raisins, flaxseed and cinnamon. What it doesn’t contain are binders, artificial flavors or colors. You will not take a bite and think, “Oh, this is algae.” It tastes great.

For the purer form, I use their spirulina powder in smoothies and in things like breads (especially my banana and zucchini breads!). They have added new products including HempLina. As the name suggests, it contains spirulina and full spectrum CBD from hemp. They add cinnamon to mask the “green” flavor. They have also started adding CBD.  Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of some 113 identified cannabinoids in cannabis plants such as hemp and marijuana. Unlike, “pot,” CBD lacks the THC that gets people high, but it does have other properties, including pain relief. CBD is a hot topic these days and is being used to reduce anxiety, cognition, movement disorders, and pain. The Hemplina triple-combo can be used to try to help improve various ailments including inflammation, mood, energy, digestion, skin health and pain relief. The product is water-soluble and so can be blended into liquids (smoothies, juice, coffee, tea all work for me). I also sprinkle it for the cinnamon flavor on cereals, toast and baked goods.

A properly grown spirulina used as a food will have protein levels over 60%. It has more: antioxidants than blueberries, more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, more beta-carotene than carrots. It also has more protein than steak on a gram-per-gram basis and it is being vegan-approved.

If you decide to try spirulina, do some homework on the producer.

It is quite remarkable and I can only imagine that interest and use of this spirulina will increase in the future. In fact, it may be, unfortunately, necessary to use it in the future.

I also found some other uses for spirulina, but I can’t personally vouch for its use as a body scrub or facial mask!

Static Electricity and the Positive Effects of Negative Ions

plasma ball
Plasma ball

As a young boy, I was fascinated by static electricity. Electricity that I could produce! I wondered why some scientist hadn’t figured out how to harness this power to make electrical devices go. Those pops and zaps and sparks when we rub our feet on the carpet or take clothing off or out of the dryer seemed to come from nowhere.

I don’t recall ever having a science lesson in school about static electricity, though I have tenuous memories of rubbing balloons to produce it that may have been a class demonstration.

This morning there was a zap when I kissed my wife good morning. Ah, a spark is still there! I don’t want science to kill romance, but it led me to do some research into what was really happening.

Static electricity is one of the oldest scientific phenomena people observed and described. Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus made the first account; in his sixth century B.C. writings, he noted that if amber was rubbed hard enough, small dust particles will start sticking to it. Three hundred years later, Theophrastus followed up on Thales’ experiments by rubbing various kinds of stone and also observed the “power of attraction.” But neither of these natural philosophers found a satisfactory explanation for what they saw.                 Source 

Of course, it would be another two thousand years before the English word “electricity” was coined (from Latin “electricus,” meaning “like amber”). In that time, static electricity was more of a magic trick used to make things magically attract – like a paper to a charged hand.

Static electricity come from some electrons that are on the surface of any material. When certain materials rub against each other, electrons are pulled from the weaker material to the stronger binding force. Shuffle your feet along a carpet and then touch the metal doorknob and Zap, a small lightning bolt.

In winter or any time when the humidity is low, we notice it more because dry air is an electrical insulator. (Moist air acts as a conductor. )

How much power is in that spark? Typically, the amount is low. Well, the voltage can actually be very high – 100 times that of the outlet on the wall. But voltage is just a measure of the charge difference between objects. The thing you have to worry about is current. That is the measure of how many electrons are flowing and in your static electricity zaps it is just a few electrons. But those few electrons can have an impact.

On one dry winter day, I returned from a walk with my iPod Shuffle earbuds still in my ears listening to a podcast, and pulled off by zip-up sweatshirt and then touched the iPod. Pop! Not only did I feel a charge that ran up the wires to my ears, but the data stored on the device was damaged.

antistatic wristband

My experience didn’t damage the device itself, but static electricity can deliver a fatal charge to sensitive electronics. When people work on some electronics (such as inside a computer), they often wear an antistatic wristband. The wristband is grounded to some safe metal object nearby that wouldn’t be damaged by a static zap.  You could also ground yourself by touch a metal object or holding one (think of Ben Franklin’s key at the end of a kite string). Metal is a great conductor and the electrons are very happy to jump there.

A more serious though less likely threat is when you discharge electricity near flammable gases. My father showed me when I was quite young that when he was working on his car’s engine or around gasoline (including near a gas station pump), he would ground himself before touching the pumps or engine or car battery. I still do it when I’m working around my lawn mower and snowblower, though the risk is probably quite minimal.

People have humidifiers in their homes in winter for the positive effect it has on your skin and nasal passages, but it also reduces charge buildups. You might add fabric softener sheets to your dryer load to not only soften the clothing but to lessen static charges that make clothing cling. They actually tend to help balance out the electrons.

Woolen winter clothing and rubber-soled shoes will give you more of a static charge than cotton clothing and leather-soled shoes.

Does static electricity have any practical uses, as I had wondered in my childhood?  We have probably all seen a electrostatic generator make someone’s hair stand up or touched a ball that then produced lightning bolts from our fingers. But we can’t use it to power our smartphone – high voltage, low current. Still, it does have practical applications.

Electrostatic generators such as the Van de Graaff generator, and variations as the Pelletron, are used in physics research.

Many photocopiers use electric attraction to adhere charged toner particles onto paper. Some air fresheners (such as Fabreze) add more than a nice artificial fragrance because they are also discharging static electricity on dust particles which dissembles the bad smell.

Charged plates are used in some home heating and cooling systems and in industrial applications to capture dust, smoke and other minute particles. As particles move through the system, they pick up negative charges from a metal grid and are attracted to plates that are positively charged where they can be disposed of manually.

Static electricity is used in nanotechnology to pick up single atoms by laser beams. Nanoballoons can be switched between an inflated and a collapsed state using static electricity, and one day they might be used to deliver medication to specific tissues within the body.

negative ion band via Amazon

On a more personal level, you may also see some more New Age than scientific applications, such as wearing a negative ion band on your wrist. These wristbands are promoted as being useful for sports and any time or activity where you need a power boost or increased energy. In this stressed world, that probably means all day, every day.

The claim – which may be definitively unproven but has some science behind it – is that the negative ions can “balance” you and can help sleep, sinuses, hay fever, asthma, the immune system, relaxation, stability, energy levels, concentration, joint and muscle aches, arthritis, circulation and more. Sounds rather miraculous.

Negative ions are odorless, tasteless, and invisible molecules and we inhale them in abundance in certain places (those waterfalls, beaches, mountain streams).  When I’m watching the ocean waves on a beach or standing by falling water, I do feel “better.” Of course, some of that feeling comes from the natural beauty of the setting, but research also seems to indicate that some of that positivity in me comes from the higher number of negative ions there. Yes, this negative is positive in another sense. The opposite effects occur in a sealed office building: more positive ions, less aesthetics, more stress.

On the website, I read that negative ions that get into our bloodstream are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our daytime energy.

I wrote an entire post some years ago about the positive effects of negative ions, but I didn’t make the connection to static electricity.

We know that the dispersion of water from waterfalls, waves, or even lightning and water evaporation from plants, create hydrogen ions by splitting water molecules. The negative electrons join up with other free positive electrons in the air neutralizing their electrical charge.

An air ionizer (or negative ion generator) is a device that uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules and generate negative ions. Air ionizers are often used in air purifiers so that particles are attracted to the electrode in an effect similar to static electricity. These devices can cost hundreds of dollars for “professional” ionizers and less for household room devices.

One trendy application I see in offices lately are Himalayan salt lamps.
These are made from Himalayan pink salt which has minerals and is supposedly free from toxins. Lit and heated by a small lightbulb inside the hollowed out salt, it releases negative ions.

In a new Age way, these are said to create harmony and balance mind, body, and soul , and so make a good addition to a place used for meditation, yoga, or sleeping. I suppose the idea of having them in offices is to balance the positive ions that dominate those sterile spaces. Maybe they add some earth and fire elements to the feng shui of the space.

I say “New Age” when explaining these lamps because I could find no scientific evidence that they have any positive effects on people near them. But I don’t dismiss any possible placebo effect.

Can any type of device that produces negative ions have a positive effect on people and perhaps even act like a mild antidepressant? It seems too early to know for sure. Does filtering out dust mites and dander improve health? Sounds logical. Does putting negative ions into the air improve your mood? There is some evidence that it does.

Of course, the negative ions when I’m standing next to the Great Falls of the Passaic River blow away the ones coming off a salt lamp, so I will stick to natural negative ion producers for the time being.

The Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey by Wally Gobet on Flickr