Audio books for your child, walks by the water will do you good and eat more probiotics to alleviate depression 

SINGAPORE (July 17): Many parents are moving to homeschooling in reaction to the Covid–19 pandemic, with millions of them turning to activity books, flash cards and audiobooks to educate their restless children. While some parents might struggle to find which educational material works best for their offspring, a new report by the UK’s National Literacy Trust suggests that audiobooks have the potential to be a key resource for children’s literacy and well-being.

The study, conducted with 58,346 children and teenagers whose ages range between nine and 18, shows that 52.9% of them said that listening to audiobooks has increased their interest in reading. Similarly, two in five of the children and teenagers surveyed (42.6%) confirmed that audiobooks have made them more interested in writing.

The report also points out that seven in 10 children and young people claimed that listening to audiobooks makes it easier to understand the content of an actual book. “I prefer listening because I can concentrate more on what it is saying but when it is reading I get distracted sometimes,” one of them said of the benefits of listening to audiobooks.

The study also reveals that audiobooks allow children and young people to access the benefits of books, regardless of their own reading and writing skills. Among them are perks like developing their vocabulary, stimulating their imagination and learning how to express themselves.

Even more surprisingly, researchers of the National Literacy Trust suggest that audiobooks encourage boys to have a more positive attitude towards reading. While girls perform significantly better than boys in reading, a majority of surveyed boys (51.1%) claimed that listening to audiobooks has increased their interest in reading books.

“(Boys) think they are getting away with something by listening instead of reading. We don’t have to tell them that they are learning vocabulary, story structure, sentence composition and a dozen other literacy skills,” American children’s author Jon Scieszka noted about boys’ interest in audiobooks. In addition to boosting children’s literacy, the National Literacy Trust reveals that nearly one in three of surveyed children and young people (31.8%) expressed that listening to audiobooks made them feel better during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“It is incredibly encouraging to see that so many children have been actively choosing to spend their extra free time in lockdown listening to stories. It shows the value of stories to children’s lives and the comfort and entertainment they can offer, particularly in times of uncertainty,” noted Jonathan Douglas, chief executive of the National Literacy Trust, in a statement. 

Short walks by water could boost your well–being

Now that lockdowns are lifting in many areas and many can travel more freely, the best place to head to could be the beach or a nearby lake. This is especially so after new research found that being near areas of water could help boost our mood and well-being. Led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a centre supported by the “la Caixa” Foundation, the new small– scale study looked at 59 adults to see how blue spaces — which are areas that mainly feature water such as beaches, lakes, rivers or fountains — could help improve well– being.

The participants were asked to take a 20-minute walk in a blue space, which in this study was along a beach in Barcelona, on four different days in one week. In a second scenario, they were asked to take a 20-minute walk in an urban area on four days of another week. In the third week, they were asked to simply spend time resting at home.

Before, during, and after each activity, the participants had their blood pressure and heart rate measured and completed questionnaires to assess their well-being and mood. The findings, published in Environmental Research, showed that the participants had significantly improved levels of well–being and mood immediately after they had walked in the blue space, compared with walking in the urban area or when resting at home.

When the researchers looked to see whether there were any benefits for cardiovascular health, as measured by the participants’ heart rate and blood pressure, there was no statistically significant difference after they had been in a blue space or an urban space. However, the authors say that this could be down to the design of the study, and blue spaces still appear to bring benefits for mental health.

“Continuous, long–lasting exposure to these spaces might have positive effects on cardiovascular health that we were not able to observe in this study,” said lead author Cristina Vert. “Our results show that the psychological benefits of physical activity vary according to the type of environment where it is carried out, and that blue spaces are better than urban spaces in this regard”.

Although many studies by ISGlobal have already shown that spending time in green spaces such as parks can bring health benefits like a lower risk of obesity, improved attention in children and slower physical decline in older adults, there has been less research on the benefits of blue space.

The new study now provides further evidence that blue spaces can also boost health and well–being. “According to the United Nations, 55% of the global population now lives in cities,” explained Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, a coordinator of the study. “It is crucial to identify and enhance elements that improve our health — such as blue spaces — so that we can create healthier, more sustainable and more liveable cities.” 

Eat more probiotic foods

New UK research has found eating a diet that includes probiotic foods, or a combination of both probiotic and prebiotic foods, may help ease depression and anxiety. To look at how these kinds of foods could potentially be used as a therapeutic treatment for depression and/or anxiety disorders, UK researchers reviewed seven existing studies which had investigated the effect of eating a diet that includes pre– and probiotic foods on these mental health conditions.

Probiotics are live microorganisms which are thought to improve or restore the natural balance of bacteria in the gut, while prebiotics are indigestible compounds in food that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract. All of the studies had investigated at least one strain of pre- and probiotics, while four had looked at combinations of multiple strains.

The findings, published last week in BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health, showed that there was no statistically significant association between prebiotics alone and improvements in depression or anxiety. However, each of the studies showed a significant decrease or improvement in biochemical measures of depression and/ or anxiety, and/or symptoms of anxiety and depression, when eating a diet that includes probiotics alone or a combination or pre– and probiotics, compared with no treatment or taking a placebo.

They also found that out of the 12 strains included in the study, 11 were found to be effective. As patients with depression and anxiety often have certain other health conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the researchers add that there could be the potential to experience even bigger benefits by taking pre– and probiotics, as they have been shown to be effective in also treating these other conditions.

“As such, the effect that probiotics have on patients with [common mental disorders] may be twofold: they may directly improve depression in line with the observed findings of this review, and/or they might beneficially impact a patient’s experience of their [common mental disorder] by alleviating additional comorbidities,” said the researchers.

They also point out that the review does have its limitations, such as most of the studies looked at a small sample of participants and only lasted for a short period of time, meaning they can’t draw any firm conclusions at this point. However, they add that the evidence so far suggests that pre– and probiotic therapy does warrant further investigation as a treatment for these conditions. One of the most common probiotics foods is yogurt, but good sources include other bacteria–fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso, kombucha and kimchi.

Prebiotics are found in many fruits and vegetables, especially those that contain fiber and resistant starch, including asparagus, artichokes, bananas, onions and yams, as well as in food such as whole grains and soybeans.