Walking to school reduces stress--with positive affects on lifelong cardiovascular health

This recent research from the University of Buffalo seems to confirm what many of us have noticed about outdoor exercise--it not only improves your general fitness and burns calories, but it seems to have a long-lasting relaxing and calming effect.

Researchers believe this effect has long-lasting health outcomes:

A simple morning walk to school could reduce stress reactivity in children during the school day, curbing increases in heart rate and blood pressure that can lead to cardiovascular disease later in life, according to a new University at Buffalo study. UB researchers report in the August 2010 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that children who took a simulated walk to school later experienced smaller elevations in systolic blood pressure, heart rate and perceived stress while taking a short exam than children who had gotten a simulated ride to school.

Cardiovascular reactivity -- including changes in heart rate and blood pressure due to stress -- is associated with the beginnings of cardiovascular disease in children, and atherosclerosis -- the dangerous build-up of cholesterol, calcium, fat and other substances in artery walls -- in adults.

This one aspect of the Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by author (and Missouri native) Richard Louv.

Louv wrote:

A growing body of scientific evidence identifies strong correlations between experience in the natural world and children’s ability to learn, along with their physical and emotional health. Stress levels, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cognitive functioning—and more—are positively affected by time spent in nature. “In the same way that protecting water and protecting air are strategies for promoting public health,” says Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “protecting natural landscapes can be seen as a powerful form of preventive medicine.” In October, researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine, Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis, and the University of Washington reported that greener neighborhoods are associated with slower increases in children’s body mass, regardless of residential density. Such research will be immensely helpful as we rethink our approaches to urban design, education, and health care, in particular our societal response to childhood obesity.

Yes, we need more research, says Frumkin, “but we know enough to act.” To reverse the trends that disconnect children from nature, actions must be grounded in science, but also rooted in deeper earth.