The pandemic has served up many lessons, but one of the most positive ones has been a renewed appreciation for the great outdoors, even among those didn’t care much about it before. As the world closed down, seemingly overnight, back yards, front stoops, parks, meadows and beaches became sanity-saving escape hatches.
Now that summer’s in high gear in North America, spending time in nature is infinitely easier than it was back in December. Regardless, I encourage you to carry the habit forward long after summer has set. Keep getting out there no matter what the weather does. Time spent in the outdoors and connecting with the Earth will support the health of your body, mind, and spirit, just like good sleep, wholesome foods and regular movement. Think of your time in nature as a wellness practice, an essential part of your self-care regimen, so don’t miss a dose. To paraphrase the words of iconic nature writer Edward Abbey, time in nature isn’t a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit. Here’s what nature has in store for you:
Nature deficiency is a thing.
Suffering from a deficiency in vitamin N (as in ‘nature’)? Lockdown or not, if you have a traditional desk job, the answer is likely a resounding ‘yes.’ According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American spends 93% of their life indoors, tucked inside sealed-up, insulated homes, cars, offices, etc. All that indoor life tends to dull the senses, suppress immune systems, depress spirits, increase exposure to indoor toxins and sharply increase risk for illness and disease. Not a lot of upsides to report here. The good news is that the many downsides are easily curbed simply by stepping outside, ideally, several times a day. Even if your sorties are only for a few minutes at a time, they can still help turn the tide. And you can add a virtually effortless ‘earthing’ practice to the mix (more on that below) to extract max benefit from Mother Nature.
Time in nature gives you the D’s you need.
It’s pretty simple. A life spent largely indoors can make you sick; getting outside and soaking up a little fresh air and sunshine can help keep you well. Much like plants which harness the sun’s rays through photosynthesis, our bodies need and use sunlight to help the skin produce the vitamin D necessary to build bones, tame inflammation, boost the immune system and protect against cancer. Though dermatologists and public health authorities tell us to fear sun, developing a sensible sun strategy – as in, regular sun exposure in small, managed, unprotected doses – is beneficial. Just don’t for a minute think that it’s a license to roast!
Mother Nature is kind to your brain.
Exposure to outdoor sunlight helps elevate our mood and regulate our circadian rhythms. And regular nature exposure in general helps boost energy and concentration. It makes you more alert to your surroundings, quieting mental chatter and swirling thoughts. The parasympathetic nervous system switches on, cortisol drops, and the brain’s prefrontal cortex — your hard-charging command center— eases up on the gas pedal as you drift into a soft-focus state of restful awareness. It’s like a mini-vacation for the mind. There’s a pay-off for the body as well. Research suggests that the aromatic chemicals released in forested areas may play a key role in turning on the immune system’s prized anti-cancer “killer T-cells” – a major bonus in our book!
It’s always a good time for a ‘forest bath’.
In Japan and South Korea, formalized wellness practices are built around spending time in nature. For example, the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” is a very common (and fully-clothed) practice which involves quietly immersing oneself in the sensory atmosphere of trees to soothe the harried mind, something akin to meditation’s effects. Over the course of the pandemic, the forest bathing concept has made inroads in our country as well, as people looked for healthy ways to tame skyrocketing anxiety levels. Remember how crowded our local parks were at this time last year? I urge everyone to keep up the good work and keep seeking refuge in green spaces, even as life returns to a busier pace and gyms re-open.
Can’t fit in long walks in the woods during the week? Then commit to spending few minutes every day walking amongst the trees to calm, soothe and give you a fresh perspective. Silence your phone, breathe deeply, look around you and listen to the wind rustling through the greenery. These quiet, technically unproductive moments may liberate your mind to hit on solutions to problems that you might not have come up with had you remained anchored to your desk. Got Zoom calls (still!)? Consider turning off the camera and take calls outside as you stroll and stimulate the creative juices.
Take a ‘forest bath’ with others.
Not especially confident of your wilderness skills? If you’re starting out, then a quiet walk through tree-lined park is fine. But if you’re ready to take off the training wheels, try connecting with a local MeetUp group, or try Hike it Baby, which organizes free group hikes for parents and caregivers with children. You can also sign up for an excursion with a certified therapeutic forestry guide through the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy or community groups like Sierra Club, Outdoor Afro , Latino Outdoors , and the Natural Leaders Network. Signing on with a group that knows the territory is great for newbies, and makes it easy to connect with others as you move through nature together.
Connect with the earth, literally.
While you’re out in nature, whenever possible, try to take the experience a step further. Lose your shoes. Really. Take them off for a few minutes and physically connect to the earth. Besides the mind and mood benefits I’ve already mentioned, a dose of naked foot contact with the ground, known as ‘earthing’ or ‘grounding,’ delivers a gently energizing effect, helping to restore and maintain the body’s natural electrical balance, which in turn supports optimal health.
How exactly does that work? Though you might not realize it, our planet’s virtually imperceptible electrical charge 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!
For example, if you’ve ever felt better after a barefoot walk on the beach, or simply sitting or lying on a grassy patch, you’re connecting with and harnessing the natural negative electrical charge of the earth. You breathe better, your nervous system settles down – it’s like an almost instant chill pill, minus the pill.
Grounding recharges your batteries.
This skin-on-the-ground contact helps replenish your supply of free antioxidant electrons, promoting anti-inflammatory activity by neutralizing positively charged free radicals. In a number of studies, this simple ‘earthing’ practice reduced every measure of stress tested. It’s also been shown to be an effective way to regulate cortisol production — high during daylight hours, low at night – which helps restore the orderly rhythm of wakefulness and sleepiness. No grass in sight? Try a few minutes of skin contact with dirt, gravel or, to some degree, even concrete. They’re all conductive surfaces for this humble, and effective, health-promoting act. What else can grounding do for you? Among the other benefits earthing fans (myself included) commonly report include:
- Improvements in energy levels
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Reduction in headaches (both hormone and tension-related)
- Increased endurance
- Faster healing and athletic recovery
- Reduced jet lag recovery time
Seven simple ways to get grounded today.
To harness the maximum benefits of time spent in nature, making that all important connect with the ground is key. Here’s how to go about it:
- Start by kicking off your shoes! The fewer barriers to the flow of energy between Mother Earth and you, the better.
- Put your feet, or an uncovered body part (within reason), directly in contact with the damp(ish) ground, sand or sea, or any conductive surface. In a pinch, gravel or concrete will confer some of the same benefits.
- Shoot for a 30-minute session, a few times a week (currently, there isn’t a recommended frequency).
- If there’s a park nearby, grab your lunch, take refuge under a tree, have a seat, lean against the trunk and enjoy.
- Not totally on board with the naked foot idea? Then feel free to put a napkin or towel down between you and the natural world to form a bacterial/viral barrier, but not an electrical one.
- Play in the dirt – with your bare hands or dig in your toes – just make sure the soil is clean, as in, free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to minimize exposure to toxins.
- Got a bit more time to spend outdoors? Then try sleeping in it. Try camping in a beautiful and unique location like the ones offered on Hip Camp, or check out the ‘glamping’ on tentrr.com Or, if you want to stay closer to home, pitch a tent in the backyard and bed down for the night.
- You also might consider investing in lightweight leather footwear specifically designed to enable you to ‘earth’ at your convenience to harness some of the benefits of grounding.
There are also electrically-powered earthing sheets and pads available as well, but there are concerns about increased risk of EMF (electromagnetic fields) exposure, so, erring on the side of caution, I wouldn’t recommend them.
Now let’s get out there!