06/27/2013 06:21 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Summer is Here! Discover the Healing Power of Nature

There's something about the first day of summer that always brings a smile to my face! And after this year's long and rain-filled spring, just about everyone I know is itching to get out and enjoy the extended daylight and gentle breezes. For family caregivers, summer weather offers incentives and opportunities for slowing down a bit and exploring the healing powers of nature.

It always surprises me to read that, as a culture, we just don't get out enough -- the EPA has shown that the average American spends 90 percent of their time indoors.i And of course, family caregivers looking after a homebound loved one may find it especially difficult to get outside.

Research has shown that being in nature has very real benefits for our physical and emotional health. It's my hope that with this reminder, many of us who spend so much time caring for another will be motivated to take a few minutes for ourselves -- in the out-of-doors.

What are the health benefits of being outside? Foremost, exposure to sunlight increases the body's ability to make and use Vitamin D, a vitamin that many of us lack in sufficient amounts. It seems that Vitamin D is the new buzzword -- studies suggest that the vitamin has protective effects against everything from osteoporosis to cancer to depression to heart attacks and stroke.

Now, you have to be careful when getting Vitamin D from sunlight, because dermatologists caution that unprotected sun exposure leads to an increased risk of skin cancers. They recommend use of sunscreens, which unfortunately block absorption of Vitamin D along with dangerous UV rays. Luckily, you need only about 15 minutes of sunshine on your arms and legs a few times a week to receive a Vitamin D boost. Each person should consult with his or her own doctor, but the July 2010 issue of the Harvard Health Letter proposes a reasonable guideline: short periods of exposure to sunlight a few times a week, with liberal use of sunscreen if you're going to be outside for more than 15 minutes.iii

And for your mental health? Natural light tends to elevate mood. Those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) mimic the sun's healing effects with use of a light box, but during the summer, they can get the light they need from being outside. And those fortunate enough to live near open spaces will find research on "green" exercise exciting -- according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the closer you live to nature, the healthier you're likely to be: people who lived within 1 kilometer of a park or a wooded area experienced less anxiety and depression than those who lived farther away from green space.iv It seems that being in nature, or even close to it, can help relieve some of the stresses of modern life, including too much television, distractions from cell phones and beepers, and lack of physical activity.

So if you're a family caregiver in charge of someone who can't easily get out, can you reap any of the benefits of outdoor time? Here are some things to try:

  • Carry two lawn chairs in your car and anytime you have a few minutes, set them up and enjoy the weather. Sylvie B., a caregiver for her mother, Ruth, never misses an opportunity to relax in the shade on the way home from the doctor's office. "You'd be surprised," says Sylvie, "Even a parking lot can provide some nice views of nature!" If getting into a lawn chair is too difficult for your loved one, park in the shade and open the doors and windows of the car, allowing the summer breezes in.
  • If your family member can be left alone for a few minutes, use that time to take a quick walk outside. Even five minutes of exercising outside has been shown to lift mood.v Plus, you'll be building your heart muscle!
  • Create a ritual: walk to the mailbox or the end of your street once a day--even a short trip can boost spirits and provide healthy exposure to sunlight and green spaces.
  • If your family member can't be left alone, then here's your chance to cash in on your friends' offers to help. Ask them to mind your loved one for a few minutes and get yourself outside.
  • Set up your outdoor space. If you have a patio, deck or terrace, put sturdy chairs there for you and your loved one, and take the time to go out. You and your family member will both enjoy the change of pace.
  • Engage the kids and neighbors: as a child I have fond memories of sitting under the shade of a big Maple tree with my grandmother as we prepared green beans for the evening meal.
  • If you live in an apartment with no access to outdoor space, open a sunny window and sit nearby to enjoy the benefits from inside.

For many family caregivers getting personal "alone time" is a real challenge, but getting outside is an easy way to give yourself a bit of a break, even when time is limited. We challenge the caregivers in our support program at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York to "let the sunshine in" on their lives by making it a priority to enjoy the outside a little bit each day this summer. Are there tips you'd like to share that might help others benefit from the healing power of nature?