Spending Just 20 Minutes with Nature Will Reduce Stress, Says Study
Instead of sitting at your desk, a lunchtime stroll through a park is one of the most effective stress-lowering treatments that a doctor can prescribe, new research suggests.
 
This research was conducted by a team of scientists led by Dr Mary Carol Hunter, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, and has been published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology. Communing with nature has long been recognised as restorative but now scientists claim to have worked out the optimum daily dose. 
 
“We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us,” says Dr Hunter. “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”
 
The results from the study indicate that spending 20 to 30 minutes in surroundings that made a person feel connected to nature, lowers stress hormones by about 10%, enough to improve their feeling of well-being. ‘Nature pills’, as the experience is often referred to by healthcare practitioners, could be a low-cost solution to reduce the negative health impacts stemming from growing urbanisation and indoor lifestyles dominated by screen viewing. In order to assist healthcare practitioners looking for evidence-based guidelines on what exactly to dispense, Dr Hunter and her colleagues designated an experiment that would give a realistic estimate of an effective dose. 
 
For the study, participants were asked to take a ‘nature pill’ over an eight-week period, for a duration of 10 minutes or more, at least three times a week. To track the effects of this dose, levels of cortisol were measured from saliva samples taken before and after the prescribed nature experience, once every two weeks.  
 
“Participants were free to choose the time of day, duration and the place of their nature experience, which was defined as anywhere outside that in the opinion of the participant, made them feel like they’ve interacted with nature,” Dr Hunter explained. She further added, that there were a few additional constraints to minimise factors known to influence stress such as taking the nature pill in daylight hours, no aerobic exercise and avoiding use of social media, Internet, phone calls, conversations and reading.
 
This particular experiment allowed participants to make allowances for their busy lifestyles by providing them with the freedom to choose an appropriate time slot for their nature experience. This novel experimental design also allowed researchers to gather meaningful results. “Building personal flexibility into the experiment allowed us to identify the optimal duration of a nature pill, no matter when or where it is taken and under the normal circumstances of modern life, with its unpredictability and hectic scheduling,” said Dr Hunter.
 
The study accommodated for day-to-day differences in a participant’s stress status by collecting four snapshots of cortisol change affected by the prescribed nature experience. It also allowed researchers to identify and account for the impact of ongoing, natural drop in cortisol level as the day progresses, making the estimate of effective duration more reliable. 
 
The collected data revealed that just a 20-minute nature experience was enough to significantly reduce cortisol levels. But if you were to spend a little more time immersed in a nature experience, i.e., 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking, cortisol levels dropped at their highest rate. After that, additional de-stressing benefits continue to add up, but at a slower rate. 
 
“Healthcare practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule to thumb on what to put in a nature pill prescription,” says Dr Hunter. “It provides the first estimates of how nature experiences impact stress levels in the context of normal daily life. It breaks new ground by addressing some of the complexities of measuring an effective nature dose.”
 
Dr Hunter and her colleagues hope that this study will form the basis of further research in this area. They are hoping that their experimental approach can be used as a tool to assess how age, gender, seasonality, physical ability and culture can influence the effectiveness of nature experiences on well-being. Dr Hunter believes that this will allow for customised nature pill prescriptions, as well as a deeper insight on how to design cities and well-being programmes for the public.
 
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Better To Get Nutrients from Food Rather than Supplements, Says Study
Insufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables is a well-known dietary problem today; many try to make up for it by taking supplements. Dietary supplements are being consumed under the belief that they are an easy way to get the essential nutrients for our body. However, new research has suggested that vitamins and supplements may not be enough to keep you healthy.
 
This study has been conducted by a research team from Tufts School of Medicine (USA) and published in the scientific journal Annals of Internal Medicine. The study reports that sufficient intake of certain nutrients from food is linked to a lower risk of cancer and all-cause mortality. Conversely, nutrients from supplements are not associated with a reduced risk of death; in fact, some supplements may actually increase mortality risk. 
 
According to the research, the problematic supplements were specifically calcium and vitamin D. Doses of calcium that exceeded 1,000mg (milligrams) per day were tied to a high risk of death from cancer. Similarly, vitamin D supplements, taken by people who do not have vitamin D deficiency, were connected to an elevated likelihood of death from all causes, including cancer. 
 
“As potential benefits and harms of supplement use continue to be studied, some studies have found associations between excess nutrient intake and adverse outcomes, including increased risk of certain cancers,” said lead author Prof Fang Fang Zhang, from Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “It is important understand the role that the nutrient and its source might play in health outcomes, particularly if the effect might not be beneficial.”
 
The research was conducted using data from 27,000 US adults aged 20 years and older to explore two relationships—whether adequate or excess nutrient intake was linked to all-cause mortality; and whether results changed if the nutrients came from supplements instead of food. For each nutrient, scientists calculated the daily supplement dose by combining the frequency with the product information for each ingredient, the amount of the said ingredient per serving and its unit. The assessment was based on participants’ dietary intake of nutrients from food using 24-hour dietary recalls and mortality outcomes through the National Death Index through 31 December 2001. 
 
The phase of the study that examined the impact of nutrients on death risk revealed three associations, viz., sufficient intake of magnesium and vitamin K were linked to a lower risk of death; sufficient intake of vitamin K, vitamin A and zinc were tied to a lower cardiovascular disease risk of death; and excess calcium intake was connected to a higher likelihood of death by cancer. When nutrients from food were compared to nutrients from supplements, the results showed the first two associations were due to nutrients from food rather than nutrients from supplements. While no adverse effect of calcium intake from food was noted, excess calcium intake from supplements was linked to an increased risk of death from cancer. In addition, supplements had no effect on the risk of death in people with low nutrient intake from food. 
 
“Our results support the idea that, while supplement use contributes to an increased level of total nutrient intake, there are beneficial associations with nutrients from foods that aren’t seen with supplements,” Prof Zhang said. “This study also confirms the importance of identifying the nutrient source when evaluating mortality outcomes.” She further added that it is important to understand the effect that a nutrient and its source might play on health and mortality outcomes, especially when it is not beneficial. 
 
The research team has noted some limitations of the study, including the duration for which use of dietary supplement was studied. The team are also aware that, since the prevalence and dosage of dietary supplement was self-reported, there is certainly a possibility of recall bias. The authors believe that this study has only pointed out a possible cause and further research on this possible connection will be necessary.
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Protect Teens from Junk Food Marketing by Reinforcing Their Desire To Rebel, Says Study
In the fight against obesity, researchers have been trying, for decades, to find a way to convince teenagers to skip junk food and eat healthily, with little to no effect. Adolescents are exposed to extensive marketing for junk food -- one of the biggest obstacles that researchers have to overcome. Such marketing is, by design, meant to foster strong positive associations with junk food in kids’ minds driving them to overeat. A new study has revealed that a simple and brief intervention can provide lasting protection for adolescents against the harmful effects of food marketing.
 
The research was conducted by University of Chicago Booth School of Business and published in Nature Human Behaviour. The lead authors found that reframing how students view food-marketing campaigns can spur adolescents, particularly boys, to make healthier daily dietary choices for an extended period of time. This is essentially possible by tapping into teens’ natural desire to rebel against authority. 
 
“Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feeling of happiness and fun,” said Dr Christopher J Bryan, one of the authors of the study. Biggest major finding of in the experiment is that the intervention helped in producing a long-lasting change in boys’ and girls’ immediate, gut-level, emotional reactions to junk food marketing messages. Additionally, teenage boys, a notoriously difficult group to convince when it comes to giving up junk food, started making healthier food and drink choices in their school cafeteria. 
 
“One of the most exciting things is that we got kids to have a more negative immediate guy reaction to junk food and junk food marketing and a more positive immediate gut reaction to healthy foods,” said Dr Bryan. The researchers had conducted a preliminary study among eighth standard students at a Texas middle school in 2016. Inside classrooms, one group of students was asked to read a fact-based, exposé-style article on big food companies. 
 
The article framed the corporations as manipulative marketers trying to hook consumers on addictive junk food for financial gain. The stories also described deceptive product labels and advertising practices that target vulnerable populations, including very young children and the poor. A different control group of students was given traditional material from existing health education programmes about the benefits of healthy eating.
The researchers found that the group that read the exposés chose fewer junk food snacks and selected water over sugary sodas the next day.
 
This recent study conducted a similar experiment with teenagers where they first read the marketing exposé material and then did an activity called ‘Make It True’. This activity was meant to reinforce the negative portrayal of food marketing, wherein students were given images of food advertisements on iPads with instructions to write or draw on the ads to transform them from false to true. The study also used a new sample of eighth standard students and found that the effects of the marketing exposé intervention endured for the remainder of the school year - a full three months. 
 
The effects were particularly impressive among boys, who reduced their daily purchases of unhealthy drinks and snacks in the school cafeteria by 31% in that period, compared with the control group. This relatively simple intervention could be an early sign of a public health game changer. “One of the most exciting things is that we got kids to have a more negative immediate gut reaction to junk food and junk food marketing and a more positive immediate gut reaction to health foods,” said Dr Bryan.
 
Teenagers are known have a natural impulse to ‘stick it to the man’ and their developmentally heightened sense of fairness may, finally, provide a way for the public health community to compete against dramatically better funded junk food marketers. This brief, inexpensive and easily scalable intervention appears to provide lasting protection against the enticing power of junk food marketing and to change eating habits for the better.
 
However, the study was less conclusive about the intervention’s effect on teen girls’ cafeteria purchases. Although, like boys, girls experienced a more negative immediate gut response to junk food after the exposé intervention, their daily cafeteria purchases were found to be similar regardless of whether they read the exposé or the traditional health education material.
 
The researchers are still unclear on whether the similar purchases meant that neither intervention improved girls’ dietary choices or that both were effective in girls, but for different reasons. They suspect that, while traditional health education is completely ineffective at changing boys’ behaviour, it might influence girls’ choices because it mentions calories, which might trigger social pressure to be thin. If that is the case, it suggests that the exposé might be a preferable option for girls as well, as it achieves similar results with less risk of body shaming.
 
“This study shows it’s possible to change behaviour during adolescence using a light touch intervention,” said Prof David S Yeager from the University of Texas, Austin. “Adolescence is a developmental stage when even the lengthiest health promotion approaches have had virtually no effect. Because so many social problems, from education to risky behaviour, have their roots in the teen years, this study paves the way for solutions to some of the thorniest challenges for promoting global public health.”
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