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Why playing in the dirt should be on your family’s to-do list this summer

Dirt is good for our mental health, and other reasons to get outside this summer.

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Los Angeles Dodgers' Russell Martin, right, beats the throw from left field to Los Angeles Angels catcher Jonathan Lucroy, left, to score with Corey Seager on a double by Chris Taylor during the second inning of a baseball game in Anaheim, Calif., Monday,

Los Angeles Dodgers’ Russell Martin, right, beats the throw from left field to Los Angeles Angels catcher Jonathan Lucroy, left, to score with Corey Seager on a double by Chris Taylor during the second inning of a baseball game in Anaheim, Calif., Monday, June 10, 2019.

Alex Gallardo, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A new study suggests that dirt is good for our mental health.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have been studying a soil-dwelling bacterium shown to ease stress, and they have now identified an anti-inflammatory fat that they believe is responsible for its stress-busting effects.

"We think there is a special sauce driving the protective effects in this bacterium, and this fat is one of the main ingredients in that special sauce," lead author and CU Boulder Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry told Science Daily.

This comes 30 years after scientists offered a “hygiene hypothesis” suggesting that an increased exposure to microorganisms could benefit health, and that excessive hygiene was getting in the way.

In the years since the hypothesis was put forward, researchers have confirmed that human separation from microbes in the soil and environment we’ve always lived with negatively impacts our immune systems and mental health.

“The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation,” said Lowry. “That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorder.”

Additionally, our brains work much differently outdoors than they do indoors, according to a study from the University of Alberta, which found that the brain activity associated with sensing and understanding information changes when doing the same action outside versus inside.

As the summer begins, with parents dreading a constant barrage of screen time requests and kids fearing a moment away from their phones, many families find their anxiety and stress levels are already elevated. Here are some reasons to get outside — both in and out of the dirt — to help recalibrate everybody in this new season.

1. Get outside for exercise.

While many adults prefer going to the gym for their workout, kids don't have that option. Getting kids outside — away from beckoning screens — will typically get them more exercise.

For young children, participating in physical activities outside of school helps them develop better motor skills earlier on, finds a study from East Tennessee State University. In addition, kids ages 6-17 need 60 minutes of aerobic activity each day, with muscle- and bone-strengthening exercise as part of that time, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, while adults require 2.5-5 hours of moderate aerobic activity each week.

2. Give your brain a break.

Spending time outside allows our brains to recharge, but it has to be the right kind of outside.

A study published in Psychological Science found that a walk in nature allows our brains to recharge because the stimuli in that environment grab our attention “modestly” and allow us to consider things at a less aggressive pace than a walk in an urban environment, where the stimuli are much more dramatic and require our attention. In other words, being in a natural environment — even a park — rather than a sidewalk affords our brains the chance to rest rather than being concerned about getting hit by a car.

3. Use green spaces to encourage concentration.

Mindfulness has become a buzzword for wellness, but that’s because it works, and it works at any age.

Forbes reports that the connection of mindfulness and self-awareness is what allows for self-regulation and concentration: “If you learn to be more aware of your thought processes and reactions in the present moment, it follows that you would be more in charge of your emotions and behaviors.” The natural world lends itself to mindfulness because its lacks dramatic distractions, and mindfulness in turn leads to concentration.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne, for example, found that employee concentration levels increased by 6 percent when subjects were able to look at a green space during a 40 second “microbreak” from work. When they returned to work, their performance remained at previous levels.

“Our findings suggest that engaging in these green microbreaks — taking time to look at nature through the window, on a walk outside or even a screen saver — can be really helpful for improving attention and performance in the workplace,” Kate Lee, head researcher in the study, told Harvard Business Review,

4. Get gardening for brain health.

Gardening can be satisfying for kids and adults alike as the effort yields results that are beautiful to look at and to eat. But science has proven the work itself is also good for our brains.

AARP explains that gardening can decrease dementia risk and combat loneliness, two likely outcomes that affect us as we age, and PBS reports that talking about math and science while gardening with kids adds increased academic achievement to the health and physical benefits of gardening for kids.

There’s also something wondrous and inexplicable about gardening, as the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks explained in an essay excerpted by The New York Times: “I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”

Sacks continued: “I have a number of patients with very advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, who may have very little sense of orientation to their surroundings. They have forgotten, or cannot access, how to tie their shoes or handle cooking implements. But put them in front of a flower bed with some seedlings, and they will know exactly what to do — I have never seen such a patient plant something upside down.”

5. Help ADHD with outdoor time.

According to various studies, green spaces reduce the symptoms associated with ADHD.

University of Illinois researchers Dr. Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor have conducted several experiments on the relationship of wellness and environment, and their findings consistently show that spending time outside improves attention.

One study found the greener the space, the more marked the improvement for ADHD symptoms, while another found that regardless of the activity, the benefits weren’t just from being outside, but from being in a green setting. Additionally, Kuo and Taylor’s research shows that people who live in the most barren environments demonstrate more mental fatigue (inability to direct and sustain attention) than those who live in greener areas.

6. Boost your immune system.

Besides the benefits of gardening and the bonus bacterium that eases stress-causing inflammation, dirt is good for keeping us healthy, especially kids with developing immune systems.

As we’ve taken bacteria out of our environments — think of our hyper-sanitized homes — we’ve removed ourselves from bacteria we used to be familiar with, says Jack Gilbert, co-author of “Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System" in an interview with NPR.

Gilbert continues, “You have these little soldier cells in your body called neutrophils, and when they spend too long going around looking for something to do, they become grumpy and pro-inflammatory. And so when they finally see something that’s foreign, like a piece of pollen, they become explosively inflammatory. They go crazy. That’s what triggers asthma and eczema and often times, food allergies.”