Do You Spend Enough Time in the Dirt?

Do You Spend Enough Time in the Dirt?

How often do you spend time in the dirt?

Do you ever walk barefoot on the ground? Or stick your hands in soil while gardening or working outside? Do you get muddy while mountain biking, hiking or camping?

What if you knew that regular contact with dirt could improve your physical and mental health? Would you try to get your hands dirty more often?

In “A Little Bit of Dirt Is Good for You,” Holly Burns writes about how soil can benefit things like your mood and your microbiome:

Scientists have long known that a little dirt can be good for you. Research has suggested that people who grow up on farms, for instance, have lower rates of Crohn’s disease, asthma and allergies, likely because of their exposure to a diverse array of microbes.

In the 1970s, scientists even found a soil-dwelling bacterium, called Mycobacterium vaccae, that has an anti-inflammatory effect on our brains, possibly both lowering stress and improving our immune response to it.

More recently, there’s been an explosion of interest in the human microbiome — with people taking probiotics, seeking food with live cultures and “rewilding” their microflora. At the same time, scientists have been discovering how broad a role dirt microbes can play in our mental and physical health.

When we’re touching soil or even just out in nature, “we’re breathing in a tremendous amount of microbial diversity,” said Christopher A. Lowry, a professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

A recent Finnish experiment found that children attending urban day cares where a native “forest floor” had been planted had both a stronger immune system and a healthier microbiome than those attending day cares with gravel yards — and continued to have beneficial gut and skin bacteria two years later.

It’s not just good for kids; adults can also benefit from exposure to soil-dwelling microbes, Dr. Lowry said. So this spring, make a little time to go outside and get grimy.

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • Do you have a memory of playing in the dirt or mud? Describe that moment using as many sensory details as you can. Can you remember how getting your hands dirty made you feel — mentally and physically? Did you notice any benefits? Or did you just want to go home and take a shower?

  • Are you persuaded to spend more time in the dirt after reading the article? What, if anything, did you learn that surprised you?

  • Leigh Johnstone, a gardener and mental health advocate, said, “A lot of people still have this nervousness around touching soil.” But for him, he said, “it makes me happy.” How would you describe your relationship to dirt? Why do you think that is?

  • The article gives some suggestions for how to get in touch with dirt more often, including picking up a handful of it when you’re outside, gardening or even making a mud pie. Which, if any, of these activities might you like to try? What other ideas do you have?

  • Is finding dirt a challenge where you live? If so, what do you think could be done — either on a community or an individual level — to make it more accessible?

  • How important is spending time in nature to you? Do you get the chance to do it as much as you would like? What do you like to do outside? What, in your opinion, are the benefits of being outdoors?