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This year’s Earth Day – the 50th anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement – will be a quiet one.
For humans, at least, the planet is essentially closed on Wednesday, April 22, due to a worldwide pandemic.
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The observance was created in the US by late former Democratic Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to increase public awareness of environmental issues.
By 1990, Earth Day had gone global, mobilizing millions of people in more than 140 countries to take up environmental issues and turn them into a worldwide movement.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s celebrations are limited to our immediate and virtual surroundings.
Even though we can’t celebrate our planet with community tree plantings, cleanups and national park visits this year, there are outdoor activities to enjoy within the vicinity of your home that are good for the planet and good for your health.
Walk, run or hike the Earth
On Earth Day, take a walk or run through the neighborhood. Go alone and relish your solitude, enjoying the time for free thought or listening to a podcast. Or take advantage of the opportunity for quality time with your loved ones and stroll with your family and dog by your side.
It’s safe to do so if you make sure you “keep your distance from other people” outside of your family, said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts.
“The key word is consideration,” Kuritzkes added. “People need to be aware of their distance from others to be respectful and not crowd them, and not have other people crowding you. If people are respectful, it should be pretty simple to stay sufficiently far apart from other people so that there’s really no risk.”
It’s also good for your health. Walking in nature may even lead to less repetitive negative thoughts, according to research. And a study of older women in the US found the higher the number reached on their step counters each day, the lower their rate of premature death.
Getting your heart pumping by walking may improve your executive functioning skills, a 2018 study also concluded. Those are the skills centered in the part of your brain that helps you take care of yourself and keep up with chores and bills.
And walking at a decent speed may reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels as much as running.
Running has been found to reduce stress, alleviate symptoms of depression and improve self-esteem. The activity has also been tied to living longer by improving heart health and sleep, and staving off cognitive decline.
But is going to the beach okay? And what about hiking? If you can keep a respectful distance from other people and pay attention to hygiene, both are acceptable, Kuritzkes said.
A beach that is isolated, unpopular and uncrowded is best. If you hike on a nearby trail, maintain the same distance of at least six feet apart from others. Bring hand sanitizer and wipes so that if you stop to eat or sit on picnic tables and benches, you can disinfect your hands, Kuritzkes suggested.
Biking for strength and a good mood
Cycling through your neighborhood, on a trail or into town is permissible, as “most people on bicycles are reasonably far apart from each other,” Kuritzkes said. And since you’d be speeding down a road or path, there’s not much opportunity to transfer the virus by closely talking with people.
Just be courteous to those around you. If you do need to come to a halt, be sure you’re maintaining the proper distance from other cyclists or pedestrians.
Considering the health boosts, climbing aboard a two wheeler for exercise is easy on your joints, for one, as your weight rests on your pelvis and not your legs. Cycling is beneficial for your heart, brain and blood vessels, according to Harvard Medical School. It can also trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemicals.
Different phases of pedaling also help you build muscles in your thighs, calves and hips. The exercise builds bone density and smaller muscles, too: You use your abdominal muscles to balance and stay upright, and your arm and shoulder muscles to hold on and steer.
Those benefits can carry over to everyday activities, improving your balance when you walk or stand and extending your endurance.
Stay in touch with the Earth by gardening
Putter around in your garden on Earth Day to keep in touch with nature and appreciate whatever you pull from its soil.
One study found gardening may prevent brain shrinkage in older adults. Our cognitive abilities, including learning and memory, partly depend on the size of our brains.
Gardening is good for the Earth when you replenish its soil in the form of compost or grow flowers from which bees can graze for pollen and plant nectar. But it’s also advantageous for reaching a state of mindfulness.
Horticultural therapy is rooted in the idea that interacting with plants contributes to well-being. Caring for plants can improve your mood, blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormone levels. But we may also have a philosophical lesson to learn from plants.
In a 2018 CNN article on the topic, horticultural therapist Libba Shortridge described the life cycle of a seed to a group at Skyland Trail, a mental health treatment center in Atlanta, Georgia.
At first, a seed may appear dormant and hopeless. What does it need to grow? It requires sun and water, and patience, courage and confidence from you, to name a few. We could use those things as we navigate this unsettling time.
Enjoy the meditative qualities of nature
You might also celebrate the natural world by forest bathing.
The term comes from the Japanese word shinrin-yoku, which means “immersing in the forest atmosphere.” Since the 1980s, the Japanese have managed forests to help citizens relax and reduce stress.
Studies have shown that within just 15 minutes of this immersion, stress levels can decrease while your heart rate and blood pressure improve. You might even feel less depressed, or not as anxious, which is considerably needed during these vexing times.
Getting some fresh air is also a boon to instilling good behavior in children. A recent study found children who felt connected to nature – feeling pleasure when seeing wildflowers and animals, hearing sounds of nature – were more likely to engage in behaviors that helped other people. They scored higher on a happiness scale, too.
And if the weather’s nice, give meditating outside a shot if you can find a quiet space. Numerous studies bolster the slew of benefits meditation has to offer: It may help keep your immune system functioning optimally. A consistent practice can help us better respond to stressful situations by reshaping our brains to become more resilient.
In studies of meditation newbies, scientists found improvement in the region of the brain that regulates emotion, contributing to a state of mindfulness. Meditation may even slow aging in your brain.
Virtual Earth Day activities
You could also ring in Earth Day’s half-century anniversary with the help of your phone or computer.
Stream an eco-documentary on the Discovery Channel or Netflix. Throughout the rest of the week, EarthxFilm, an international nonprofit environmental organization that showcases environmental films, is streaming shorts and films that raise awareness for dozens of environmental issues.
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There’s also a multitude of animal livestreams coming to you from aquariums, zoos and sanctuaries.
How we’ll celebrate Earth Day this year may be unusual, but there’s no shortage of enjoyable activities that are good for your health and the planet and that will keep you safe during a pandemic.