Going Outside Can Make You Healthier

When you think about nature, you probably think about beautiful scenery. You know: crisp mountain streams, rolling hills covered with lush forests, and fields full of wildflowers. But nature is about a lot more than that — being outside can improve your mental and physical health in surprising ways. Turns out, your mother was right: fresh air really is good for you.

“Nature” doesn’t necessarily mean forests and mountain ranges, although it definitely includes those spaces. Any green space — whether it’s an urban park, a walking trail, or an open, grassy area — will do.

Here’s proof that being outside will make you healthier:

Exercising gets easier outside.

The mental health benefits of exercise are well documented. But did you know being outside can make exercising easier? Some studies have shown that the color green makes exercise feel as though it’s less strenuous, increasing the likelihood that you’ll want to do it more often. And other studies have indicated that people who exercise outdoors get more excited about future workouts than those who exercise indoors. What’s not to love?

You’ll ramp up your Vitamin D intake.

Remember how your mother always reminded you to take your vitamins? Vitamin D is one you won’t want to skimp on. It’s vital for the growth and development of bones and teeth and helps your immune system work. But Vitamin D is tough to get from foods because so few carry it naturally. How to stock up? Head outside! But because your skin can only soak up Vitamin D from unprotected exposure to the sun, you’ll have to be careful. Go outside without sunblock for 10 to 15 minutes, or about half the time it takes most people to experience sunburn. Then, once you’ve replenished your body’s Vitamin D stores, slather on the sunscreen.

You’ll shed stress and relax.

Several studies have shown that spending time in nature reduces stress levels. While the exact reason why remains unknown, it’s clear that people who spend time in natural settings have lower heart rates and lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, than those who don’t. And when you do go outside, be sure to stop and smell the roses — literally! Scents like lilac, rose, and fresh pine have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.

Your brain will have time to put its feet up.

Studies have shown that people who live in cities deal with something called “sensory overload,” which causes what doctors call “cognitive fatigue.” That’s a fancy way of saying that urban environments tend to overstimulate our brains. After all, there’s a lot to pay attention to in cities! Green space gives your brain a much-needed break from all the goings-on, allowing it time to process information and clear away the cobwebs.

You’ll stop forgetting your car keys (maybe).

Ever walk into a room and forget why you’re there? Yeah, it happens to everyone. Improve your memory by heading outside. Students in a recent University of Michigan study took memory tests and were then broken up into two groups. One group went to an arboretum and the other took a walk down a city street. When the students took another memory test, the students who had spent time amongst trees did nearly 20% better than those who took in the city sights.

You’ll find it easier to focus.

Many of us pride ourselves on our ability to multi-task. Lots of things happening at once means you’re getting more done, right? Nope. Studies have shown that multi-tasking… isn’t. Luckily, being outside — or even having a view of some green space outside your window — can restore your ability to concentrate. The effect is so strong that studies suggest it could help children with ADHD.

Lucky for us, Western New York offers ample opportunity to get outside and enjoy nature.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Ask around and you’ll be sure to find more options.

We saved the best part for last: getting your daily dose of nature doesn’t mean you’ve got to do anything extreme, like a 100-mile hike or whitewater rafting. Head to the nearest park and enjoy a walk, a bike ride, or some time on a bench enjoying the scenery. You can even get these benefits by sitting outside on your porch! (Just don’t forget the iced tea.)

Farmers Market Season: 10 Reasons To Shop

It’s summer, and in WNY that means it’s farmer’s market season! Farmer’s markets are a great way to stock up on fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and homemade goodies for the week. There are so many great reasons to take advantage of farmer’s market season. Here are some of our favorites.

1) Support your local farmers! They work really hard. It’s difficult for small farms to succeed in today’s global economy. There’s a pretty good chance some of the fruit in your kitchen right now spent time in China, unless you bought it directly from a local farmer. Keep your money and your produce local.

2) Unbeatable quality. Unless you grow it yourself, it won’t get fresher than this. You’ll be able to taste the difference. In some cases, you might learn for the first time what your favorite fruit is supposed to taste like!

3) Transparency. You may be surprised to learn that mass producers are required to disclose very few of the processes their produce undergoes. From artificial coloring to pesticide use to secret additives, you can be confident that when you buy from a farmer, there are no tricks. Just fresh, delicious food.

4) Buy from the experts. While the produce manager at your local grocery store may have a lot of knowledge on various fruits and vegetables, it won’t compare to the knowledge held by the people who grew it themselves. They can tell you which of their apples are best RIGHT NOW or will get you exactly the kind of pie you want. Not to mention advice on things like canning and storing. Not sure what kohlrabi is or how to eat it? Looking for a new way to prepare your favorite fruit? Go ahead and ask. People love discussing their passions.

5) Community! Whether your local farmer’s market is held in a parking lot or a grassy park, it’s a great way to spend some time enjoying the fresh air and seeing members of your community come together with a common interest in feeding their families fresh, healthy food. Some of them even let you bring your furry friends to partake in the fun! Weekly farmer’s markets are one of the last remaining true community hubs.

6) It’s so much more than fruits and vegetables. Local honey. Meats. Cheese and milk. Bread and pastries. Even wineries and breweries are getting in on the farmer’s market action. If it fits your budget, it’s possible to do all your shopping at a local farmer’s market – supporting local businesses and avoiding over-processed options.

7) They’re for everyone. Speaking of budgets, some local markets have found a way to accept SNAP benefits, meaning they’re working to close the gap between income and food choice. Elmwood-Bidwell is one local market that’s adopted this service. Because doesn’t everyone deserve access to fresh food?

8) Support sustainability and humane animal treatment. Unfortunately, the conventional food market in the U.S.A. is wrought with abuse of our planet and animal friends. By shopping at your farmer’s market, you’ll find meat and animal products that were produced humanely, and fruits and vegetables that are farmed with sustainability in mind.

9) Take care of yourself (and your family). We all understand the need for convenient options and budget constraints. But fresh fruits and vegetables and wholesome foods are essential to your health. Why not get the most delicious options (that also come with a surplus of other benefits)? Even if you just pick one or two fresh, seasonal items to swap out from your normal shopping list, you’re doing your body a favor.

10) Do it for the kids. Your children will benefit from knowing that food doesn’t come from “the store.” Let them pick out their own fruit, or a vegetable to try. Let them meet the farmers who are growing their food and ask questions. Not only will it get them outside, it might get them interested in a lifetime of healthy food choices.

There are so many reasons to add a local farmer’s market to your shopping rotation or weekly activities schedule. We’re passionate about healthy choices, and believe that farmer’s markets are a great way to introduce some healthy habits into your family’s lives. What are your favorite reasons to visit your local farmer’s market? Share them on our Facebook page.

For a list of local farmer’s markets, check out Step Out Buffalo.

So You Want To Be “A Runner”

With the Buffalo marathon a few days behind us and summer race season kicking off, now is the time of year when many people start considering the addition of running goals to their lives or fitness routines.

Whether you’re a lifetime athlete looking to add running to your regiment, a lapsed runner looking to get back into it, or a brand-new runner with no idea where or how to start, getting into the running game is a health step that your future self will thank you for.

For now, we’re going to take to that last category of burgeoning runners – the ones who are brand new to the game and not sure where to start.

In this case, getting started is as simple as literally taking one step at a time.

GEAR

Let’s start at the beginning. Here’s what you need to take your first jog:

  • Decent running shoes. You don’t need to go out and spend $300 on your first pair, but make sure you have athletic sneakers that are comfortable and offer adequate support and cushion – and not 10 years old.
  • Breathable running clothes. You don’t have to get fancy. WNY gets pretty humid in the summer, so a wicking fabric will be your new best friend, but chances are you already have something in your closet to get you started.
  • Accountability. This comes in many forms. A running buddy is great motivation, or consider joining a group. Sometimes, just telling someone your goals makes you more likely to keep them. Or creating a plan, and tracking your progress. Figure out what will keep you motivated.
  • A goal. Concrete goals are often easier to reach than abstract goals, but not always. Maybe you want to be able to run a 5k without taking any walking breaks. Maybe you want to lower your risk of diabetes. Or you need a healthy way to relieve stress and clear your mind. Think about why you want to start running, and what you hope to achieve.

That’s it! Running is a very inexpensive, low-gear way to exercise. While heart-rate monitors, fitness trackers and fancy gadgets can be very cool and can contribute to a more enjoyable and beneficial routine, they aren’t necessary to get started – don’t look for excuses. Just start with what’s essential, and what you already have.

PREPARATION

Once you have the things you need to get started, there are a few things to keep in mind before taking off on your first run:

  • Prep your body a little first. If you’re already active, you’re good to go. If you aren’t, take a few weeks to start walking every day or engaging in some sort of light aerobic activity.
  • Set reasonable expectations. The first few weeks will be challenging. Maybe very challenging. Expect it, embrace it, remember your goals and push through.
  • Soreness is expected. Muscle fatigue is part of the game, and you’ll probably start to ache in places you didn’t know could ache. Those are all OK. But sharp pains, persistent pains or something that just feels wrong shouldn’t be ignored.
  • Form is important, and you want to develop good habits. Take short strides, keep your elbows at 90 degrees, don’t swing your arms in front of your body, keep your shoulders back and your head high, and relax!
  • Start off slow. It’s perfectly OK, and often recommended, to start with run/walks. Run for 1 minute. Walk for 2. Alternate for the duration of your run (hey, now that really doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?). Gradually (over weeks or months) increase the time spent running and decrease the time spent walking. If you don’t have a watch or timing device, trust the cues your body will give you.
  • It’s not necessary to stretch before you run. Start slow, try some dynamic stretches, and make sure to stretch and cool down for a few minutes after your run.

NUTRITION

OK, last step. What should you put into your body when you start a running routine?

  • Drink Water. People tend to be over-concerned with hydration during a run. It’s more important to make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day. Sports drinks are probably unnecessary until you start running for more than an hour at a time. Don’t overhydrate right before a run! Drink when you’re thirsty, and rehydrate after.
  • Eat an hour before you run. Ideally, you’ll have a snack before you run and a snack after you run, without drastically altering your standard breakfast/lunch/dinner schedule. Eat within 15 minutes of the end of your run to allow your body to recover better. Of course, healthy snacks of lean protein and whole grains make a big difference in performance.
  • Be aware that running may change your appetite. Any change in physical activity will. Make sure you’re nourishing your body by eating a healthy diet. If weight loss is a goal, speak with your doctor about caloric intake so you don’t overeat, but also so you don’t under-eat.

There you go! You’re ready to start running and take the first step toward whatever your health goal includes. Good luck, stick with it, and we’ll see you at the finish line!

And if you’re looking for a local race to sign up for, check out the Running in the USA website, that lists races by date and location.

Hiking Your Way To Better Mental Health

We all know that hiking is good for the body. The physical benefits of exercise have been well documented, and the ever-changing challenges of a good hike provide a fun way to get outside and get moving. But what about the mental benefits of hiking?

A 2015 Stanford University-led study revealed that walking in nature significantly lowers your risk for depression.

The study, which compared 90 minute walks in a natural area to 90 minute walks in a high-traffic urban area, showed that walking in nature caused changes to the area of the brain most associated with depression that weren’t found in those walking in urban settings.

Other studies have shown that city-dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of developing mood disorders than those who live in rural areas. Hiking can increase attention spans and problem-solving skills, and lower stress levels.

The benefits of hiking extend beyond what science can prove. Finding a beautiful natural setting can help you think more creatively. Walking in nature can help you feel less lonely and more connected; you may feel more mindful and aware of your surroundings. Hiking can help bring about peace of mind, and a hike with an end goal can add a powerful sense of achievement and accomplishment.

In some cases, simply shutting off the screens, putting your phone away (or hiking out of signal range) can have a profound impact on your state of mind, as hiking tends to force you to live in the present and engage with what’s around you.

Whether you head out on a solo hike for some quality “you” time or grab a close friend for some quality connection, the mental benefits of hiking are broad and undeniable.

Western New York has some breathtaking hiking spots within driving distance. So grab your boots and some water and get out there!

• Letchworth State Park
• Chestnut Ridge Park/The Eternal Flame trail
• The Niagara Gorge/Devil’s Hole trail/Whirlpool trail
• Zoar Valley
• Knox Farm
• Akron Falls
• Tifft Nature Preserve
• Erie County Forest
• More! Ask around.

Fish Fry Fridays – Keep the Fish, Wave Goodbye to the Fry

It’s that time of year again. The time known as Lent, when many Catholics (and others) prepare themselves for Easter with a number of different religious and lifestyle traditions. Here in WNY, a huge number of people take part in these traditions. And while they can vary widely from individual to individual, one tradition that seems to be nearly universal is the act of abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent.

The roots of this practice are deeply religious, but the benefits of this practice extend beyond personal faith and growth. Since meat is forbidden, many people turn to fish. And in Western New York, where we’re known mainly for our wings, we’re not a bad contender for our fish fries as well.

Let’s take a minute to talk about the health benefits of eating fish.

The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice per week. So if you partake in Lenten Friday fish fries, great news! You’re halfway there!

Fish is a healthy, lean source of protein, and it’s packed with vitamins that aren’t easily found in other common foods. Fish is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which our bodies don’t naturally produce but are essential to heart and brain health. Some studies have linked high consumption of fish to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and macular degeneration. Fish is also high in vitamin D, which many people are lacking in their diets but is crucial to calcium absorption.

Now for the bad news: fish fries aren’t good for you, folks. They’re delicious, sure. And it’s totally fine to eat them occasionally with tartar sauce and without guilt. The nutritional elements of fish don’t change, regardless of preparation. However, deep fried anything isn’t exactly the picture of a healthy meal.

So, what if we swapped out our fish fries for another, more healthfully prepared fish? Most restaurants will swap out the standard fish fry for a broiled version, with additional seasoning to amp up the flavor without the breading and oil and calories. If you love going out each Friday, try ordering a different seafood dish. Or try a vegan or vegetarian dish. You might be surprised! This growing trend has talented chefs all over WNY flexing their muscles and reaching for alternative proteins.

You can break tradition and prepare your own meatless dish at home. With the recent renaissance of Meatless Mondays, there are thousands of recipes online catering to every diet and skill level. And, in fact, Meatless Monday is a tradition that dates back to WWI, when the slogan “Food will win the war” was used to rally citizens into rationing costly food products like meat and wheat (Wheat-less Wednesday hasn’t come back with quite the same force). If you combine these traditions and replace meat with fish, voila! You’ve got your two servings of recommended fish each week.

By skipping the “fry” part and sticking with the “fish,” you’re both honoring your religious traditions and doing your health and wellness a favor.

The WNY Advantage: A Guide To Enjoying Lake Effect Snow

Here is WNY, we’re known around the country for our winters. And while it’s easy to wish it was 70 degrees and sunny year round and we could all throw away our snow shovels and tear up our plowing contracts and forget we ever knew the words “snow tires,” we often forget the abundance of opportunities our snowy climate brings us. We all know about the downhill ski clubs, but winter has so much more to give than just skiing!

It’s easy to get up and get moving in the warmer months, but winter tends to make people want to curl up inside by the fire. And with six months of snow, that’s a lot of sitting! Why not take advantage of climate and find ways to get the whole family up and moving this winter.

WNY offers up just about every winter activity you can think of, and probably some that you didn’t. Activities that you wouldn’t get to enjoy if you lived in Miami, or that you’d have to drive pretty far to experience in California.

Wondering what the Greater Buffalo Area has to offer during winter?

 

Curling

You’ve seen it in the Olympics, now test your own skills! For casual play, Canalside provides beginners experiences for $15/person for 60 minutes, and although reservations are suggested many times walk-in reservations are available. If you take your winter sports more seriously, Buffalo RiverWorks offers Olympic regulation sessions for $200/lane for 120 minutes (each lane plays eight people). Both offer instruction and equipment. And don’t be fooled by the seemingly slow pace of the game – an afternoon of curling is bound to leave a few of your muscles a little bit sore.

 

XC Skiing and Snowshoeing

If downhill skiing isn’t your speed, or if you’re looking for a more aerobic skiing experience, cross country skiing or snowshoeing might be perfect for you! Cross country skiing engages all the major muscle groups in your body and gets your heart pumping. Plus, it’s a great way to warm yourself up on a cold day

If you own your own skiis or snowshoes, there is an unending list of places to use them – basically all the same places you love to hike – including Chestnut Ridge Park, Knox Park, Delaware Park, Sprague Brook, Tifft Nature Preserve, etc.

Don’t have your own equipment? No problem. Rent them at Holiday Valley (bonus: they also give lessons), Reinstein Woods, or Bryncliff Resort. You can also rent them from many local ski shops, including Campus Wheelworks in Buffalo. These are great activities for the whole family, as they don’t require a lot of skill to get going but help promote a healthy activity that can be done at any age!

snowshoeing

 

Sledding

Sure, we’ve all gone sledding down neighborhood hills. But why not kick the adventure up a notch and go somewhere designed just for sledding, somewhere where you’ll go so fast your hat flies off and you get butterflies in your stomach? WNY is loaded with great sledding hills.

Go big-league with tubing at Holiday Valley (must be at least 7 years old and 42” tall), or find a designated sledding hill near you.

Chestnut Ridge Park has a great one, complete with a toboggan chute (BYO toboggan) and a warming lodge. Elma Meadows also offers incredible sledding hills. If you’re looking for a local spot, try Gunther’s Hill in Hamburg , Akron Falls, Beaver Island in Grand Island, Como Lake Park in Lancaster or Delaware Park (Marcy Casino) in Buffalo. Engage your sense of adventure on the way down, and work up a sweat on the way up. Then reward yourself with some cocoa.

 

Ice Biking

If you haven’t been down to Canalside to see the Buffalo revival yet, winter is a great time to do it! In addition to curling and ice skating, Canalside offers ice biking. What is ice biking? You have to experience it for yourself. $12/30 minute rental.

 

Ice Skating

It takes a little practice, but that feeling of smoothly gliding across the ice can’t be beat. Ice skating is a great way to get the whole family together for some exercise that just feels like fun.

There’s the rink at Canalside, which offers both free skate and skating lessons. Skate rentals are $5, and admission is $4 for kids (under 5 is free!) and $6 for 12+.

You can also skate downtown at the Rotary Rink in Fountain Plaza, which has a more Rockefeller Center feel to it. Admission is free for all, and skate rentals are $2 for kids and $3 for adults.

Or check out the new downtown HarborCenter! Admission is $6 adults, $1.25 kids 7 and under. Skate rentals are $3. Riverworks is also offering open skate on a limited schedule. Admission is $5 and rentals are $5.

If you don’t feel like heading downtown, you can visit the Healthy Zone Rink in East Aurora. Admission is $5 and rentals are $3 (no credit cards). Open skate hours are limited, so check the website before visiting.

The North Buffalo Ice Rink offers public skating every day of the week, and admission is $2 for adults, $1 for kids, and rentals are $2 for everyone. Get the whole family out moving, or save it for an active date night with someone special.

 

Snow sculptures, snowmen, snow angels and snowball fights

Kids in most parts of the country never experience the satisfaction of digging out their very own cozy igloo. Get creative in your own backyard! Snowy weather doesn’t have to mean you’re housebound. Snow is a lot of fun – don’t let it go to waste!