Have you ever asked yourself exactly why being in nature is good for you? You may instinctively know tht a jaunt outdoors dusts off the cobwebs and gets some fresh air into the lungs, but can you point to any more concrete well-being motivations for heading for the hills?
Well, now science is coming to answer many of our questions, giving us solid, testable answers to support long-held beliefs. And what’s being revealed is not only reassuring but highly promising for how we will collectively look after our well-being in the future.
From physical fitness to the healing power of nature, from finding your natural rhythm to becoming a kinder person, nature and the great outdoors has an important role to play in our well-being. Let’s discover exactly how.
1. increase your fitness outdoors
Newsflash: exercise makes us fitter. Ok, so this may be no revelation, but outdoors activities have specific benefits that a man-made environment can’t entirely replicate. Using one measure (calories burning per hour on average) let’s consider the physical nature of four outdoors activities:
- Hiking: 400-700 calories/hour;
- Rock Climbing: 500-900 calories/hour;
- Mountain Biking: around 500 calories/hour;
- Canoeing / Kayaking: around 700 calories/hour.
Admittedly, these calorie counts are achievable amid the pounding music and clanging metal of your local gym. But a primary benefit of exercising outdoors is this: in nature, you burn those calories while not thinking about burning those calories. Or getting stronger, or whatever your fitness goal may be. It just happens while you revel in the whole experience. So forget a reason you’re working hard and still reap the benefits.
And there’s more: being outdoors will also have you exercising for longer.
You can probably only manage to reach these calorie-burning thresholds in short burst in the gym, say for an hour three times a week. Instead you could spend that whole week hiking, reaping these very clear, measurable physical benefits all day every day, surrounded by mountains. Again, the purpose becomes about more than just getting fitter, so the effort of fitness becomes a wonderful by-product of having a great old time in nature.
Get fitter, go longer. A slogan that could grace any National Park sign.
2. Get back on rhythm
You’ll no doubt be aware of the importance of sleep for your health and well-being. Getting enough sleep is important, as is getting the right kind of sleep. To ensure you get the rest you need, take a short trip into nature.
Your body follows what’s known as a ‘circadian’ rhythm. This anticipates day and night, and helps your body plan how much rest it needs so you can work at your best when you need to.
Amid artificial lights, time pressures and punishing schedules common in urban living seasonal changes in nature—and therefore changes in ourselves—are ignored. This can easily throw you out of touch with your natural rhythm.
The result? The rising prevalence of seasonal affective disorders, common ailments like tiredness and reduced concentration, and more serious outcomes like obesity, type 2 diabetes and mood disorders.
Thankfully, nature offers a simple solution.
Recent research in the US has shown that a weekend camping trip surrounded by the natural light rhythms can be enough to reset you back onto the rhythm your body needs. Longer exposure to brighter natural light enables you to rise and to go to bed when your body is meant to. In winter, this can lead to you naturally waking up more than two hours earlier than normal, but without any of the grogginess normally associated to early mornings.
After resetting, the researchers encourage other ways to maintain the positive benefits of rediscovering a natural rhythm. These include reducing the amount of artificial light in the evening and spending more time in daylight during the day.
So go on, head out and discover your real rhythm for life.
3. Experience real achievement in the Outdoors
In our increasingly abstract world, finding a sense of real, tangible achievement is difficult. Whatever level you may have achieved on Candy Crush, it is a weak comparison to the elevating feeling of a scaled rock face, a summitted mountain or a completed hike.
In nature, the challenges you face will always be real. Whether it’s climbing from the bottom to the top of a rock wall or hiking from one campsite to the next, the achievement is something you can look back on, touch, quantify and say in full confidence, “I achieved that”.
For most of us, each one simply joins a growing pile of our achievements, rather than ranking us against others. Climbing a mountain is not about being the first to the top, it is about reaching the top and descending safely, usually as a part of a whole group. When you achieve in the outdoors, that achievement gets added to your accumulating range of experiences, rather than something that replaces or supersedes some past measure. No adventure is forgotten because all are unique and valid achievements on their own.
Part of this is also the fundamental problem-solving nature of any outdoors activity. They are not just physical or mental exertions, but both of these things and more.
Reading a map, reading the wall for the next handhold, reading the weather before deciding whether or not to go on: the outdoors requires the whole of you to be engaged.
And this is partly because the risks involved are also entirely real. This rope needs to be properly set up so if you fall you won’t die. This map needs to be read and the distance judged correctly to arrive at your destination before night descends. The choices you make matter in a very real sense; making the right ones are all part of the sense of achievement felt at the end of the day.
Amid real risks arrive real rewards. The personal and collective sense of achievement for completing an activity outdoors is rarely bettered by any experience found indoors. And to celebrate your achievement, simply turn around and enjoy the view.
4. The healing power of the great outdoors.
“Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost.”
Nature Therapy (2008)
There is a general view that nature is good for us, but now the outdoors’ healing potential is being given solid support from scientific communities. New studies suggest that nature can help us fight obesity, depression, allergies and even improve pregnancies. And given the statement above, it would be hard to argue against nature becoming the future of preventative and restorative medicine (again, hardly a new idea!)
A report, commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe, showed clear results such as pregnant women having lower blood pressure and bigger babies, and middle-aged men living near nature having a lower death rate than their urban counterparts. These add to the long-held understandings of the improvements to self esteem and mental well-being that are found through time spent in the outdoors.
This point is picked up by the Sierra Club, an adventure organisation in the US who offers army veterans suffering from PTSD and disadvantaged youths support and opportunity through outdoor adventures. Director, Stacy Bare, shares that for him, and many of the men and women he has led on such adventures, being outdoors “is better than any other therapy you can get”.
5. Discover a natural state of presence through the outdoors
The task-based and physical nature of many outdoor activities makes them ideal conduits for achieving a sense of presence. It is a stark contrast to the non-stop digital distractions of modern life.
Presence—an alertness to the world around you as it is in the moment you’re living—is increasingly desirable simply because it is now so hard to achieve. Between work, family and other pressures that are perpetually exerted by a majority of modern lifestyles, being able to be ‘in the moment’ is increasingly becoming a luxury commodity.
But this is not the case out in nature, as founder of the rock climbing charity Vertigirls, says: “you’re not thinking about anything else whilst you’re on the wall, all your energy is focused on what you’re doing at that moment”.
This is an automatic form of attention that doesn’t require us to actively direct our attention from one distraction to the next. Ironically, having a clear singular focus enables us to rest our ‘directed attention’, which is one of the factors that drains our mental energy in our everyday multi-tasking lives, according to Professor Stephen Kaplan.
Or perhaps presence comes from the type of silence you find in nature. If not silence, then simply being surrounded by non-synthetic sound that seems to enable us to connect to a sense of our history or place in the larger, historical context of human beings. Or maybe birdsong is just very beautiful and helps you drop any needless worries.
But for others, presence is part of an unusual measure applied to the study of the benefits of the outdoors. It is the study of awe, and researchers like Craig Anderson and Lani Shiota use awe as a way to measure psychological well-being. They argue that regular doses of awe are fundamentally important to our wider well-being, and awe is best found in nature.
Albert Einstein says it better. He said that anyone “who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead: his eyes are closed” (Living Philosophies).
Presence also clearly links with the sense of achievement mentioned above. Out in nature, the process and outcome are real, felt, lived things.
Leave your worries (and your emails) in the past and find your true self out in the wild.
6. Change your brain with nature
Science is proving that hiking changes your brain. Here are some of the ways the outdoors can help your brain become fitter, healthier and happier:
- Reduce negative thoughts
Depresion, anxiety and low self esteem are all linked to negative thoughts processes. These will often loop in the minds of a sufferer, taking them away from the world around them. Yet as little as a 90-minute walk in nature can decrease the prevalence of these negative thought patterns and give a very real, and necessary, sense of calm and contentment to those who truly need it.
- Reduce symptoms of ADHD
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is marked by distraction and excessive, disruptive behaviours. Yet studies have shown symptoms significantly lessen when a child suffering from ADHD engages in ‘green outdoor activities’.
- Reduce stress levels
The release of endorphins from exercise, the smell of fresh air, the sights of nature – whatever you attribute as the reason stress levels decrease in nature you’ll find reams of scientific support.
- Reduce memory loss
Aerobic exercise is proven to increase hippocampal volume, which in turn improves the retention of memory as we grow older. But it is also proven to help us all improve our short-term memory, with test subjects showing a 20% improvement in retention of informationcompared to those walking in urban environments.
7. How the outdoors makes you kinder
Awe plays a role in this unusual benefit – how nature can make us kinder and more generous.
Through a series of tests, it has been determined that being among nature that elicits a response of awe (say giant redwood trees or a spectacular cliff top view) or in the presence of perceived beauty (say an alpine meadow full of blossoming mountain flowers) increases our willingness to be generous and more giving. To give it a technical term, nature increases our ‘prosocial behaviours’.
There are links here also to the social benefits of being in nature. Activities such as rock climbing or hiking require a group to connect and collaborate to achieve goals safely and successfully. By becoming co-dependent on your fellow adventurers, you enter a natural dialogue of trust and support that creates a deep social connection. This social benefit is highlighted by the charities, organisations and academics mentioned in this article who are working to demonstrate the benefits of the outdoors to the wider public. Businesses are increasingly turning to outdoor activities to help foster a keener sense of cooperation and better communication amongst employees in an attempt to engender and maintain a higher level of teamwork skills.
8. Improve your body, improve your mind.
There is a drive in some architecture circles to develop ‘restorative environments’. These environments, which can be as simple as offering you a view of trees from your office window, are looking at solutions of bringing nature into the office. Why do this? Because study after study is revealing that the benefits to our health, productivity and well-being are beyond doubt.
So, here are some of the other benefits of being in the great outdoors for yourfo body and mind:
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury. But it is a response that is also linked to auto-immune disorders, IBS, depression and cancer.
These responses occur when the body is in a chronic state of inflammation, often driven by high levels of stress, among other factors. But studies show that inflammation levels drop within a week of being in nature, so regular short trips could have genuine long-term benefits. Good, natural sleep also helps this, and being outdoors helps ensure you get this (you’ll remember that from earlier).
- It’s good for your creativity.
One study has suggested that after four days in nature, and crucially away from handheld technologies, our creative ability to solve problems increases by up to 50%. But experience will tell you as much as any study. Tell me where you long to be able to paint, craft a poem or sing a song at the top of your lungs that ‘does justice’ to you surroundings? Nature is a place that reveals our creative side as a part of our wildness, so head out there to rediscover yours.
- It’s good for your eyes.
Myopia, or shortsightedness, often develops when our eyes are not exercising. This is particularly the case with children, whose developing bodies automatically adapt in response to the environment they find themselves in. A number of studies have shown that time spent outdoors significantly decreases the prevalence of myopia in children in adolescence.
- It may be good for preventing cancer.
Though research is at an early stage on this one, there are suggestions that spending time outdoors increases the prevalence of anti-cancer proteins in our bodies. These may reduce the risk of our developing cancer, and is backed up by initial studies on life expectancy in Japan. Additional benefits may also include improvements to our immune systems.
Being near green space helps you live longer. For all the reasons we’ve listed and many more, science is absolutely now supporting our intrinsic and instinctive understanding that being outside among nature and being physical in that nature is a fundamental good in having long and fulfilling lives.
After all that evidence, why are you still sitting there? Turn your device off and head for the hills!
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