Being locked-down, quarantined, socially-distanced, and cut off from even the most basic human interactions has been hard on mental health and physical health, not surprisingly. But until we get a handle on the pandemic, we all need to give our minds and bodies extra TLC and engage in just about any and every activity possible that can contribute to supporting our well-being through these tough times. Good sleep, healthy foods, no sugar and regular movement – these are all essential parts of the self-care package, but don’t forget one of the most under-rated wellness habits: spending time in nature. Whether you like to head for the hills, the beach, or the nearest park bench, nature has the power to heal both mind and body – so the more outdoor time you can get, the healthier you’ll be. Here are a few ways to get your daily dose:
Time in nature lifts you up, mentally and physically.
When it comes to basic physiology, exposure to natural light has several wonderfully positive effects, including helping to keep our circadian rhythms on track, boosting mood and offering anti-depressive support – something we all can certainly benefit from these days. What’s more, the effects of “Vitamin N” have been shown to impact not only mood, but also weight. Take a study from the University of Essex in England where the same group of people took two different walks: through a country park and an indoor mall. The experience was night and day. The park walkers almost all got a mood lift whereas nearly a quarter of the mall walkers felt more depressed after their indoor stroll. In another study of some thirty-eight hundred inner-city children in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the researchers found that, on average, more trees in the neighborhood corresponded to the kids having a lower body mass index!
Nature is your chill pill — minus the pill.
Spending quality time in verdant surroundings almost immediately calms the body — just what you want to optimize your immune system. Likewise, nature helps shift your brain into a state of restful awareness, making you more alert to your surroundings but less burdened by mental noise and swirling thoughts. The senses come alive – eyes, ears, sense of touch and especially the olfactory system, so much so that some researchers theorize that the aromatic chemicals released by pine trees may play a role in turning on the immune system’s prized anti-cancer “killer T-cells.”
Nature boosts your energy and concentration.
In Japan and South Korea, formalized wellness practices are built around spending time in nature. For example, the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku translates as “forest bathing” and involves quietly immersing oneself in the sensory atmosphere of trees to soothe the harried mind. ‘Doing nothing’ in nature except being fully present initiates a cascade of beneficial effects: The parasympathetic nervous system switches on, cortisol drops, and the brain’s prefrontal cortex—your hard-driving command center— takes a break as you drift into a soft-focus state of awareness. This allows you to shift from information overload to a state of pleasure, letting go of negative thought cycles, rejuvenating mental energy, and connecting with wellsprings of creativity. So, whether your boss has you back at the office or working from home for the duration, schedule a short morning or a lunchtime break in nature (even if it’s only in the back yard) to refresh and restore mind and body – and maybe even enable you to come up with a creative solution to a problem you might never have come up with sitting immobilized at your desk.
Nature makes your exercise sessions feel more enjoyable.
With the fate of many gyms and group workout classes up in the air, now is the time to take your movement outside – no more excuses! Exercising in green and wild spaces has been shown to be more beneficial than indoor workouts in terms of lower perceived effort, greater motivation, and higher pleasure levels. Just remember to be present in the environment as you move, keeping distractions to a minimum. Unplug the headphones if possible and let your senses absorb every sight, sound, and smell in the moment.
Nature can help ease depression.
As to how much nature is necessary to derive the most mental health benefits, the jury is still out, but, Finnish researchers studying the topic prescribe several short immersions per week, and they’ve found a longer, forty-minute walk packs an even more potent anti-depression punch. Meanwhile, in the U.S, trained forest therapy guides (yes, it’s a thing) recommend at least one weekly contemplative walk over the course of seven weeks to build your own nature therapy practice. If, with practice, you can add more walks per week, you’ll enjoy a greater pay-off.
Nature boosts your mental performance.
For the richest benefits, let the iconic nature writer Edward Abbey be your inspiration. He said, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” Venturing beyond everyday boundaries and entering unexplored wilderness is the deepest form of nature refreshment. One study showed a 50 percent increase in mental performance after three days of backpacking. Granted, not all of us are able to hike into the deep woods on the regular, but when the opportunity to get deep into nature presents itself, grab an outdoorsy buddy and head out into the wilderness to reap nature’s benefits.
Nature grounds you – electrically.
In addition to all the nature benefits I’ve described, direct, naked foot contact with the ground, known as ‘earthing’ or ‘grounding,’ delivers another therapeutic jolt. Just ditch your shoes from time to time and dig your feet into a patch of grass. Regular contact with the earth connects your body with the Earth’s virtually imperceptible electrical charge, which helps stimulate a number of positive physiological changes in the body. According to a study published in the Journal of Inflammation Research, “electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth (as in grounding or earthing) has positive effects, specifically on taming inflammation, boosting immune response, aiding wound healing and reducing pain.” The study suggests that “grounding” can help prevent and treat chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, improve sleep quality, increase blood flow and reduce stress – making Mother Nature an even more powerful wellness force than most of us gave her credit for!
Heed the call of the wild.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the overwhelming majority of adults spend an average of only 5 percent of their day outside, making all that indoor time a virtual recipe for feeling depressed and lethargic. And it’s safe to assume that all those shelter-in-place days only made matters worse. Who among us wasn’t itching to get outside for, if nothing else, a change of scenery? That urge was our body sending us a message. So no matter what happens in the days to come, think of getting your daily dose of nature as important as eating your greens! Remember, when you commune with nature, even if you’re just sitting in the backyard, you’re not just ‘doing nothing,’ you’re giving yourself a dose of nature’s medicine. You’re giving your body the space to rebuild resilience, return to homeostasis, and tune back into its natural rhythms, without pills, and with “side-benefits.” In other words, just what the doctor ordered.
See you on the trail, or on the beach, by the lake or in the park!