Thanksgiving family tension? Walking together outside can help

If there’s more tension than thanks at your family gathering this holiday week, just take a hike — literally. The best solution may be to grab your relatives and go for a walk together outside.

Strolling for 20 minutes in a natural setting restores people’s attention and leads to a greater sense of family togetherness and closeness, a small study published in the journal Children, Youth and Environments found.

The research involved mother-daughter pairs, but the authors theorized the results would be similar for other combinations of family members.

“We highly encourage families to get outside together as often as they can,” Dina Izenstark, co-author and an assistant professor in child and adolescent development at San José State University, told TODAY.

“Nature has such a powerful effect on family dynamics because it can restore mental fatigue. When family members are less mentally fatigued, they have the potential to get along better with one another.”

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Children with obesity also have more risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure and high cholesterol than their normal weight peers. In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, almost 60% of children who were overweight had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), and 25% had two or more CVD risk factors.

Here’s why: You only have so much attention to give to other people before you start getting tired, which can leave you distracted, impulsive and unable to read others’ emotions — not a great recipe for family togetherness.

But being in nature has a special way of restoring your attention. When you walk in a park or a forest, you get away from everyday thoughts and responsibilities, you feel like you’re part of a different world, and you can let your mind wander when you watch “softly fascinating elements” — such as leaves blowing in a tree, a waterfall or clouds in the sky, the study notes.

That leaves you less irritable and more in touch with other people’s social cues. Now, you’re primed to communicate and get along better with your family.

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For the study, Izenstark and co-author Aaron Ebata, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, asked 27 women and their young daughters to take 20-minute walks together in both a mall and an arboretum. The pairs clearly preferred the nature walks, and they scored higher on tests designed to measure their sense of closeness and “mutual appreciation” after the arboretum stroll than after the mall experience.

Type 2 diabetes is increasingly being reported among children who are overweight. Onset of diabetes in children can lead to heart disease and kidney failure.

Most any walk outside has the potential to have that effect on your family, including a stroll around your neighborhood — though areas with more trees and vegetation, and less noise, crowds and cars can be especially restorative, Izenstark noted. Just get outdoors in a way that works best for your family, she advised.

As you stroll, it’s probably best to put your phones away, or at least on silent mode.

“The further family members can feel removed from the everyday stressors of life, the better,” Izenstark said.

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The findings may help you beyond Thanksgiving gatherings. The authors encouraged families to find ways to build outdoor time into their daily lives — perhaps a 20-minute walk in the morning or after dinner.

You may also want to try to find a new park or natural area to explore every weekend, or substitute one 20-minute television program for one 20-minute walk around the neighborhood.

“Nature is a cost effective way to improve both individual family members’ mental health and the quality of their family interactions,” Izenstark said.

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