This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the Let's Talk About Parks” series. The series is designed to encourage exploration and discovery of Pittsburgh's urban parks.
In a single hour on a recent unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon, Pittsburgh’s Parks were buzzing. Kids squealed as they raced through the super playground at Highland Park, while walkers and runners of all ages circled the reservoir. At Riverview Park, cyclists hugged the curves of switch back roads as they descended deep into the thick woods. College students whizzed from hole to hole on the Schenley Park disc golf course, and North Side families walked through Allegheny Commons while their kids laughed and ran ahead, chasing the squirrels that were spiraling up tree trunks. At the Frick Environmental Center, a guided nature hike was setting out into Frick Park in search of owls. It seemed like everyone wanted to be outside.
What draws us to nature, and why does it make us feel good?
There are several reasons, and one of them is chemical. Human brains are complicated organs, and have numerous chemicals working in tandem which affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. A neurotransmitter — or chemical messenger — called serotonin signals our brain to feel good. There is scientific proof that being in touch with nature helps boost serotonin levels. This leads to a positive frame of mine, as well as an increase in activity in parts of our brain that are linked to love, emotional stability and empathy.
Mental health professionals have found that being in the presence of trees can leave us feeling happier and less stressed. It’s thought that the vast diversity of trees — with their bright colors, patterned bark and sometimes strong fragrances can remind humans that life grows and adapts in even the toughest of environments. University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Jordan F. Karp who frequently visits the green urban oasis of Schenley Plaza agrees. “The natural world allows our brains to rest and slow down, and can trigger positive feelings and a sense of peace. Regular and thoughtful access to the outdoors can have enormous positive affects on how we feel,” said Dr. Karp.
Being outdoors actually makes you healthier
There is also evidence that spending time outdoors decreases levels of cytokines, another kind of chemical messenger that affects inflammation. This decrease in cytokines reduces inflammation which may have benefits for heart, bone and emotional health. In addition to reduced cytokines, outdoor activities such as playing Frisbee or lying on one’s back watching birds fly overhead can reduce other hormones like cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone. When one is physically or emotionally stressed and too much cortisol is released, people may experience increased feelings of anxiety, depression and insomnia. Spending even a few minutes outdoors has been shown to lower cortisol, improve blood pressure and reduce stress levels.
An added benefit to being outside is a positive effect on vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is key to our bodies having healthy bones and teeth, and may prevent depression. Our skin produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, and regulates the activity of up to 2,000 different genes in our bodies. Vitamin D is important at all stages of life, with kids needing it to ensure normal growth and development, and older humans needing it to keep bones from becoming brittle. Ten minutes outdoors in downtown’s Mellon Square or in Lawrenceville’s Arsenal Park is literally good for your bones.
Improve your well-being by making a plan to get to parks
As spring begins to make its way into our region, you may notice an increased sense of well-being, and your daily exercise may seem less strenuous. A University of Essex study had cyclists pedal in front of images that were red, grey, and green. Those cycling in front of the green images reported better moods and less exertion during their exercise segments than those who peddled in front of other colored images, suggesting our bodies react positively to the greens of tree leaves and grass. There is also evidence that those that exercise outside are more eager to return for a future workout than those who exercise exclusively indoors. There is a reason the runners who speed along Schenley Park’s Bridle and Panther Hollow Trails return again and again, logging countless outdoor miles.
Make time to watch the peregrine falcon soar over Schenley Plaza, or to grab lunch under the London plane trees in Highland Park. Take a hike on the newly-signed trails in Emerald View Park, or watch the sunset (or rise) from your own front yard. Watch the lights in the grass twinkle on as dusk approaches in the Walled Garden at Mellon Park, or look for new green sprouts along the nearly 50 miles of trails in Pittsburgh’s five regional parks. You’ll feel better. And now you know why.