To say the pandemic changed a lot about how we move through the world would be an understatement. For many people, it’s also changed how we live in it. From about March 2020 on, safe to say that just about everyone experienced first-hand the power of Mother Nature to help soothe troubled souls and minds. Even those who may have previously considered themselves home-bodies, or heaven forbid, ‘couch potatoes,’ came to understand just how essential time spent outside the walls of home really was – and remains – to maintain our well-being.
But one fact often gets overlooked. Beyond being good for your emotional life, connecting with nature creates incredibly positive physical changes in the body as well, making time spent in nature a powerful natural medicine that I happily ‘prescribe’ to all my patients. Time in nature is nothing less than a pillar of wellness – along with good sleep, whole foods, and plenty of movement — that can make or break how well you feel right now and for the rest of your life. Why else does nature matter to us humans? Read on, and then get out there!
We started as outdoor people.
Going back many thousands of years ago, when most of our conversations consisted primarily of grunts and gestures, we lived life outdoors 24/7. Sure, our Stone Age forebearers took shelter in caves and lean-tos to stay out of reach of pesky predators, but four walls and round-the-clock AC were not on the menu. Outside was ‘in.’ Later on, with the Industrial Revolution and the advent of desk-based work, we headed indoors to work and live, and for the most part, have parked it there pretty much ever since.
More indoor time, more ills.
All that indoor living, comfortable as it may seem, is not doing us a lot of favors. Most of us spend 80 -90% of our days indoors soaking in countless indoor air pollutants – whether you work from home or in an office. It’s easy to see how a day at the desk can take a lot out of you physically. By contrast, a day spent hiking through a verdant forest will leave you feeling pleasantly tired, calm and relaxed. Too much indoor living can, among other things, weaken the immune system, increase susceptibility to infection, undermine sleep-wake cycles, encourage poor health habits like electronics overuse, over-eating, over-drinking, self-medicating, etc., while also reducing the body’s ability to absorb vitamin D, which it can’t make without sun exposure. Without sufficient D, we compromise our bodies ability to build strong bones, tame inflammation, protect against cancer – all terrible for your long-term health prospects.
Then consider the psychological fall-out of la vida indoors. Extended periods of indoor time tend to boost feelings of loneliness, anxiety and psychological stress. Simply put, life indoors comes with a truck-load of health downsides, mental and physical.
Nature is part of our (metaphorical) DNA.
Spending time in nature, the research shows, is something that’s almost baked into our DNA. A large-scale study by the National University of Singapore looked at how much time identical twins spent in natural spaces They found that twins shared a similar level of desire to be in nature, indicating that ‘nature loving’ is a heritable trait, and likely one that’s hard-wired, in varying degrees, into us all.
But what if that desire doesn’t feel like it’s part of your genetic makeup? Get out there anyway! Turns out, we tend to be healthier mentally and physically when we spend more time in the natural world, so I say indulge on the daily no matter the weather. Not completely sold? If you’re living your best post-pandemic life, as an experiment try a few days locked up inside and see how quickly mood tanks and energy drains – from there it’s a hop-skip to the muscle-less blob ‘hover chair’ people made famous in the movie Wall-E. No thanks.
Time in nature helps put the brakes on stress and anxiety.
Heading out for a walk, good. Heading into a tree-filled park or forest, even better. For example, studies show that a 90-minute sortie in nature, compared to an urban setting, tames depression risk, not only by encouraging the release of happiness hormones but also by stimulating feelings of awe and wonder. That, not surprisingly, calms the nervous system and triggers the release of oxytocin, the “love” hormone that promotes trust and bonding. Another study found that those who walked in nature for 90 minutes were less likely to negatively ruminate about themselves — a risk factor for depression — than those who walked in an urban environment. A University of Essex study took it a step further, finding significant differences between those who walked through a countryside park and those who walked indoors, with the green space walkers reporting almost universal mood upgrades versus the indoor walkers, who showed a noticeable decline in happiness levels.
Turn on your killer T-cells, even when you’re miles from a park.
No proper forested areas near you? When you can’t find a truly wild locale, unchain yourself from the gym weight room and look for ways to get as much ‘green exercise’ as you can. Hop onto local biking or walking paths; try your hand at urban gardening; take an outdoor yoga or fitness class; rent a kayak and go for a paddle on a local pond or lake; or even take a walk in the rain to feel more connected, literally, with natural elements. What’s more, being outdoors is great for waking up your senses – eyes, ears, touch and smell, so much so that research indicates that the aromatic chemicals released by growing things like flowers, grasses and trees may play a role in turning on the immune system’s prized anti-cancer “killer T-cells,” as well as a decreased expression of pro-inflammatory molecules.
Another benefit to taking more of your movement routine outdoors? It’s just more enjoyable, with considerably less of the hamster-wheel-induced boredom that comes with hours spent on a treadmill. Exercise done outdoors enhances the perception of less exertion and adds the pleasant distraction of changing scenery while also connecting you with the soothing natural soundscapes of tweeting birds, rustling trees and crunching leaves under foot – so unplug your ear buds — or at least pull one out — as you move to more fully engage with nature’s upsides.
Nature helps you fight off killer conditions.
Leave the light bulbs behind and step outside into the natural light of day to absorb a few of nature’s most profound natural physiological boosts. For starters, the great outdoors will help regulate and maintain your circadian rhythms (aka your ‘body clock’) which in turn regulates the way your heart functions. Move around in that light for about 30-40 minutes a day and the benefits go up from there, the health risks go down and you start reducing heart disease, and stroke risk by roughly 35% percent and Type 2 diabetes by as much as 40%. If you ask me, that is an unbelievable feather in your outdoor cap and could make the difference between long-term, vibrant health and being saddled with chronic illness. Any wonder why I prescribe nature to everyone?
Nature makes your brain happy and healthy.
Though we in North America may be a little late to the outdoor party, for years other cultures have been prescribing time spent in nature. In Sweden, friluftsliv, the term for living close to nature, is so ingrained in everyday life that tax breaks are offered to citizens to incentivize nature-based practices, which we suspect may also help keep costs down on the national health system. In Japan, the tradition ‘forest bathing’ is a routine self-care practice involving immersing oneself in the mind-quieting, meditative atmosphere of the natural world. In Scotland, where appropriate, doctors are encouraged to incorporate outdoor activities to their treatment plan prescriptions – think of it as a natural ‘wonder drug.’
Beyond simple mood-enhancement though, it’s also important to recognize that time in nature isn’t all just fun and games – it’s actually enables your parasympathetic nervous system to kick into gear, dropping cortisol levels, while also giving your prefrontal cortex – the often too-busy control center of your brain – a much-needed time out. That transition from overstimulation to bliss enriches you with the ‘positive energy’ typical of restful states; mental fatigue is relieved and creative inspiration comes to light. So when workday pressure starts to build, taking an outdoor break, even if you only have a few minutes to spare between Zoom calls, will help reset body and mind, improve mental performance, and give it a quick refresh to help get you through the rest of your work day.
5 out-of-the-box ways to get your nature on.
Yes, investing a little time to get your nature on is required, but doing so feels so good and does so much to promote your health, how can you say no? Beyond exercising, hiking and bathing in nature, here are a few ways to bring more of the great outdoors into your life year-round:
1) Rethink your nights out.
Got friends? Then drag ‘em out with you – and stay out. Instead of going out for drinks and dinner, go for a long walk, or a forest hike or antiquing at outdoor markets. Have a drink or meal along the way if that’s your thing but the idea is to go outside and stay outside for as long as possible. Unless it’s snowing or raining, fresh air and fresh food is a wonderful alternative to sitting elbow-to-elbow in a stuffy restaurant.
2) Save the living room for January for the living room.
During the pandemic, we all got used to entertaining outdoors. Though some liked it more than others, it was a lesson in being outside even perhaps when we weren’t necessarily feeling it. While the warmer months are easy for entertaining, you don’t have to go back inside as soon as the kids go back to school. Bust the pandemic firepit back out, keep the deck chairs nearby, add some cozy blankets and keep outdoor life rolling well into the holidays.
3) Hit the beach off-season.
Just about any non-tropical beach in wintertime brings with it stark beauty, solitude and peaceful surroundings. Add to that, hard packed sand and no one on it makes it out -of-season beach time perfect for long-distance wandering, listening to the sound of gentle waves lapping the shore, feasting your eyes on sun-dappled seas and the sight of birds riding on the wind. We’re talking about nature at its most soul-stirring.
4) Think like a Finn.
Finland is known for very long, very dark, cold snowy winters. It’s also known for having winters almost as action-packed as their summers, weather be damned. As the Finns say ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.’ In other words, dress warm and be active no matter what to keep your head on straight til the light returns in April (or so). Ski, snowshoe, snow-bike (yes, it’s a thing!), walk in nature, book a trip to see the Northern lights, jump into the ice cold sea between sauna sessions, whatever it takes to avoid the countless downsides of wintertime hibernation.
5) Ask yourself, what can I do outside today?
If you have to put it in your Google Calendar, just do it. Literally make time for the outdoors. Come up with errands you can do on foot instead of driving; start growing a few tomatoes in the backyard; join a bird-watching club or clean-up group – anything that will make you spend time outdoors as part of a daily routine will do the trick. If motivation isn’t your forte, connect with a local MeetUp group, or try Hike it Baby, group hikes for parents and caregivers with children. Sign up for beginner hikes with groups like the Sierra Club, Latino Outdoors or the Natural Leaders Network. Another bonus? You may make a few new friends along the way too!