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Universal health care: Time outside is free medicine

Edisto Beach is one of the best in the Lowcountry for shell hunting

The cheap aluminum screen door on the front of my small-town home was dangerous. You might remember the kind. If one of the cold metal corners happened to catch your ankle as it closed, you were going to bleed out. On weekend mornings, without exception, mothers in my neighborhood could be heard yelling, "Go play outside!"

The noise made by that sorry-excuse-for-a-door closing behind me was the unlatched sound of freedom blowing me whichever way the wind was going. There was no iPad from which my face needed to be peeled away. The two-dimensional version of Super Mario Brothers offered little that could rival a bike ride to Siebert's Market. We drank Coke on the sidewalk with fingers dusted orange by Doritos, and talked about things that boys talk about in the wild.

I'm a Generation X kid, creeping on 40, still bobbin' my head to Beastie Boys, and a dad to the handsomest five-year-old boy ever. Recently, I saw two statistics that startled me. The first is that people today spend only seven percent of their lives outside. And, number two, that the current generation of kids crosses through the screen door of freedom only half as much as I did.

So what?

There are a few whats.

Suppose you’re driving home from your entirely satisfying cubicle job when a rusty Honda Civic in the middle lane decides to bang a hard left and cuts you off. You mash your brakes. Your phone slips from your lap into the dark abyss below your dashboard. Your heart and Adam's apple greet one another and a mix of hormones shoot through your veins. Triggered in your adrenal glands just above your kidneys, cortisol is the stress hormone. It’s just one of a three-part cocktail that makes up the fight-or-flight response that humans have in the event that it's time to run from a prowling saber tooth. Similar to other cocktails, too much cortisol can leave you unhappy, unhealthy, and even overweight.

Like a shot of liquid courage, cortisol is supposed to spike momentarily then fall after you choke out that tiger. Between the stress of your job, your run in with a Japanese sub-compact, and dinner time emails from your boss about your TPS reports, your cortisol levels can get high and stay high. We’ve cultivated a lifestyle that our primal bodies don't always like.

I'll tell you the bad news first. Cortisol levels manage your circadian rhythm which regulates your sleep. Your levels should decrease from midnight to 4 a.m., then increase again around 8 a.m. to get you ready to take on the day. When these patterns get out of whack, your sleep suffers. The stress hormone also causes insulin spikes which tricks you to believe you need to replace expended sugars. Before you know it, you’re buried in a pile of black crumbs from Oreo Double Stuffs. It can give you headaches, diarrhea, lower your sex drive, and even cause memory loss. All of which might be excuses not to go to work tomorrow. Good luck with that.

Now for the good news

Step one: Cup your hand around your ear and listen. You hear that? It’s my mom—yelling the same thing since the 80s. "Go play outside!" Who knew? All those moms from my Mayberry town were brilliant. Because playing outside is medicine. It’s universal health care, and it's free.

Today we have a multitude of studies that prove exactly what we already know inherently -- data that describes the feeling you get when you breathe in fresh air and feel the stress fall to the floor. Plants emit airborne chemicals called phytoncides to protect themselves from being eaten up by bugs. When we breathe in phytoncides our bodies react by lowering our cortisol levels. One study showed cortisol levels decreased by 12 percent. Inhale nature's bug repellent, exhale. That's all. There's no fine print or terrifying list side effects read quickly by a voice over guy. Simply go. Stroll down the boardwalk by the marsh, hike in the mountains, or just go to the park.

Just don't let the screen door catch you on the way out.

Interact with me as I journey to all 47 South Carolina State Parks, here on abcnews4.com and Instagram. Send me some recommendations for great places along the way and share your outdoor adventures by tagging me in your photos using the hashtag #LowcountryOutsider


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