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Happy Earth Day 2020 -- A Focus on Environmental Wellness

What this year's Earth Day can teach us about our overall environmental wellness.

As Earth Day approaches this year, I've been doing a little extra thinking a little bit about environmental wellness. Typically, I've noticed that, for most people, the term "environmental wellness" draws ideas of keeping the earth healthy and clean. With the current state of quarantine, the earth's wellness might be part of the silver lining defining the current pandemic. Right now, the earth is experiencing a well-deserved and much-needed break from the daily barrage of insults from humans across the globe. Fewer cars on the road mean fossil fuel emissions, resulting in less air pollution. Even better, fewer boat-, air-, and road vehicles in general reduces air, noise, and water pollution. As a result? Nature breathes a little easier.

It's this "breathing easier", perhaps, that leads wellness practitioners to adopt a broader definition of environmental wellness; one that includes more immediate surroundings, too. Locally, I've witnessed many neighbors, honoring the mandated quarantine limitations, take the opportunity to stretch their legs and walk around adjacent streets. Research has already proven that extra physical activity and more time outside literally helps people breath better -- exercise increasing lung capacity and being outside reduces stress. Yet, breathing easier around your neighborhood and area go beyond the physical benefits of walking.

Drawing an even smaller radius in our environment, personal surroundings significantly impact our well-being. Our home, our working spaces, and the people who surround us influence how we feel mentally, physically, and emotionally. Right now, most of us are spending an inordinate amount of time in our personal environments, with potentially poignant insights as a result.

Since this Earth Day is atypical, we're offered the chance to consider and attend to each level of environmental wellness. For starters, I tend to think of environmental wellness as concentric circles:

At this framework's most basic level, Personal Environment describes our immediate surroundings, including the spaces in and around your home, your office or place where you work, and the people who you choose to spend time enjoying. We know from peer-reviewed literature that the home environment affects the way children grow and develop, and studies reveal that home surroundings affect adult moods and stress levels. Additionally, the work environment impacts mental health and a sense of organization. Studies show that calm, clean environments improve productivity and, in contrast, clutter and chaos can decrease it. Moreover, we've all been surrounded by people who feel like they "drain our energy", while others somehow re-energize us and provide an energetic 'boost". In practice, most people have experienced the impact of personal environment on their wellness. Try to work at a cluttered desk without feeling like you need to clean before moving on. Or, attempt to relax in a room stacked with boxes or things on every surface without feeling overwhelmed.

As your environment expands into your local surroundings, things like neighbors, availability of resources, green space, and safety impact your overall wellness. These are included in the Local Environment circle (above). Public health research repeatedly correlates a person's local environment (access to healthy foods; safe places to walk, play, and ride bike; levels of crime; lighting; greenspaces and access to parks; neighbors) with physical, emotional, and social wellness. There are so many studies in this category, it's hard to choose just one to list here. Suffice it to say that having the ability to move about safely, feel close to your community, and have access to the things you need directly impact your ability to feel well.

Finally, what we consider "environmental wellness" is classified in this framework as Global Environment. Global wellness includes things like taking care of our waterways, preserving air quality, minimizing carbon footprint, reducing ozone-depleting gases, and maintaining natural resources. Since the original reuse/reduce/recycle campaign to heighten environmental consciousness in the 1970's, our ability to care for our earthly environment not only impacts our health and wellness, but that of generations to come. As a Native American proverb states, "We have not inherited the earth from our ancestors; we're borrowing it from our children."

"We have not inherited the earth from our ancestors; we're borrowing it from our children." - Native Proverb

Fortunately, right now is the perfect time to consider making changes to each of these environments, both now and as the quarantine restrictions lift.

Improving your Personal Environment

  • Sort your clutter. If you haven't read Marie Kondo's book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, now's the time. It's brilliant. It'll help you finally make peace with getting rid of the pants you wore in 8th grade and the ugly pillowcase embroidered by your Aunt Ginny.

  • Create a calm space in your home. Offer yourself a space free of chaos, paperwork, visual clutter, and to-do items. Notice how you feel when you're there. Try to help other areas in your home align with the feel of this calm space.

  • Straighten up the area where you work. Research supports that uncluttered workspaces are more productive workspaces.

  • Assemble a donation pile of gently-used items for Goodwill, Children's Home Society, American Red Cross, or another charity accepting donations. (Make sure to check each page to see what the organizations need and collect.)

  • Plant a small garden. Herbs offer an easy entrance to the world of growing plants. Even I, a self-described killer of greenery, can grow healthy herbs. Plus, herbs add extra nutrition to your plate and can often provide other health benefits, too. Click here for The Tasteful Garden's guide to growing herbs.

Improving your Local Environment

Here are just a few ways to positively impact your local environment:

  • Start a community garden. Communities across the country rally together to identify unused, unsightly, and underappreciated areas in their neighborhood and transform them into community gardens. Gardens improve access to healthy foods (both with gardeners and with area residents who receive donations of fruits and vegetables or purchase), build social and emotional wellness, increase physical activity in gardeners, and improve the safety of garden areas.

  • Lead a neighborhood clean-up. Investing in your local neighborhood offers the opportunity to build community with neighbors, create accountability and oversight within your area, and engage local authorities in investing capital and resources into improvements (like sidewalks, lighting, and more). You might be thinking, "this is too much for just one person." In truth? These types of things do usually start with one person. And that person grabs another person. And so on.

  • Join a CSA (buy locally-grown food.) If you're not already familiar, a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is a great opportunity to support a local farm. In return for your membership, you receive regular (weekly, biweekly, or monthly, depending on the CSA) baskets of fresh, whole foods. Depending on the CSA, baskets might include cage-free farm-fresh eggs, seasonal vegetables and fruits, herbs, and even locally-sourced meat. Why does it matter if you choose local? Locally-sourced and grown items tend to be fresher and, since they're seasonally appropriate, at the height of their nutritive value. You also support local businesses (Bonus: you'll know exactly how many hands touched your food before you eat it.)

Improving your Global Environment

For our earth to sustain us as we've grown accustomed, we need to change the way we use resources and support the health of the environment.

  • Reuse/Reduce/Recycle. One of the most impactful ways to improve the environment is reducing your carbon footprint. Try some of these ideas for minimizing your waste:

  1. REUSE: Buy durable goods second-hand, like bikes, furniture, dishware, and more. Often times, you'll be able to find something completely unique and unlike anything you'd find brand new. Plus, you'll save money and reduce the environmental impact of producing, packing, and shipping new items.

  2. REDUCE: Invest in simple reusable bags. Grocery bags, produce bags, and containers for bulk items (think nuts, dried fruits, oats, quinoa, etc) tend to find their way into the trash pretty quickly. Instead, bring bags with you to gather and store your foods. Items stay fresh longer, and you'll reduce the amount of plastic bought and, ultimately, throw away.

  3. RECYCLE: While most municipalities now offer some version of single-stream recycling, take a minute to find out how your area works. If you don't have curbside recycling, where can you take your recycling once a week? Items like cardboard, glass, aluminum, and many plastics sit idle and take decades (or more) to break down in the anaerobic conditions of a dump, but could easily be remade into something new if recycled. Here are links for St. Louis City and County Recycling.

  • Reduce your dependence on vehicular traffic! If the quarantine has taught us nothing else, it's that riding a bike or walking offer great transportation options for able-bodied individuals. If you're anything like me, my walks have been the highlight of each day. Try carrying this into the future, even after the limitations on travel have been lifted. If you have limited mobility, try taking a bus or local Metro. Since the renewable energy sources may take longer to become mainstream after the economic fallout of COVID, it's more important than ever to minimize your personal carbon footprint.

For more information and ideas on how to improve your global environment, visit EarthDay.org.

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