by Beth Charbonneau
Nurturing good mental health is a day-in, day-out process. We all know that we need adequate sleep and nutrition, safe housing and access to healthcare. But we may not focus as clearly on other things that add to our health, and in particular, recreation and leisure. Both of these are essential to our well being and can connect us with other people in ways that enrich and expand our lives.
When we do have down time, many of us try to relax in front of a screen — a phone, a tablet, a laptop, a TV — watching videos and shows, or spending time on social media. While those activities can be enjoyable, they aren’t giving us a lot of mental health benefits and often don’t do much to truly reduce our stress, which we typically feel in our bodies and minds from dealing with challenges in life (stressors). Stress can make us irritable and restless, and it can lead to sleep difficulties and physical aches and pains. Even when we stabilize or resolve stressors, we can still be dealing with lingering ways they may affect us. Recreation is a key antidote to stress; it can boost your mood, reduce anxiety and improve your health in a host of ways. Physical activity, creative expression, connecting with others and spending time in nature can all reduce stress and increase your well being.
Physical activity is one of the best ways we can offload stress. We don’t have to exercise vigorously to gain benefits; just being present in our moving bodies provides rewards. Our local parks and trails offer opportunities to walk, jog, bike, bird-watch, play disc golf or try archery — and so much more. Time outside in nature improves mood and even boosts our cognitive skills, including our attention and concentration. You don’t have to visit the middle of the wilderness to reap these rewards; a stroll around Lake Artemesia or a bike ride down the trolley trail can lower your stress level. Or try something new and rent a boat at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park and paddle along the Anacostia. Try to see how many of your senses you can engage while you are outside: Can you tune into the many sounds of birds, leaves rustling, or people laughing? Can you feel the temperature change on your skin as you move between sun and shade, or feel the breeze as it comes and goes? Do you smell flowering plants, cut grass or damp earth after a rain?
Connecting with others is vital for our health and well-being, too, and when we spend our recreational time with others, we supercharge the many benefits we receive. Simply taking a walk with a neighbor can be a wonderful physical and social outlet. Or you can join the county’s Yoga in the Parks program, connect with the Cycling Seniors Club and go on a bike ride, or take up birdwatching with the Audubon Society. We human beings co-regulate our nervous systems with the people around us, so when we get together, we help each other manage the stress we all carry. If you are looking to meet people, try joining the College Park parkrun on Saturday mornings at Acredale Park. This volunteer-run weekly event is free and open to all, and gives participants a chance to stroll, walk, jog or run a 5K along the Paint Branch Trail. Newcomers, kids in strollers and dogs are warmly welcomed, and everyone is cheered on and celebrated for coming out to simply participate.
Some of us are big fans of indoor activities for fun and recreation — that’s good too! Creative activities, and especially those we do together, also benefit our health and well being. Creative, expressive activities stimulate our brains and can help us be in the moment, freed up from worries and stressors. The College Park Arts Exchange offers us many opportunities to be together and create: we can sing and dance, play instruments, discuss books, and explore visual arts and creative writing. And we can gather to celebrate the talents of our local musicians and artists — simply being a spectator can give us tremendous benefits. Between arts exchange activities and performances at the University of Maryland, we have so much to enjoy, right here in our own town. And don’t miss Game Kastle or Board and Brew if you want to connect with other board game fans. Their frequent events feature many popular games and are open to everyone. Gaming with others is social, creative and fun!
If you are looking for positive ways to take good care of yourself and support your physical and mental health, give some of these recreation ideas a try. The Here & Now’s community calendar offers a host of activities and events to get you started. College Park offers something for everybody.