We have become a nation of indoor people. Research conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that the average American spends about 90 percent of their time inside. That means you are only spending a tiny fraction of your life outdoors. But approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. suffers from mental illness in any given year according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), more than 2 in 3 adults are overweight or have obesity. Therefore, spending time outdoors, in nature, is more important than ever before. Spending time in the wild offers more than nice scenery. There have been many studies connecting exposure to nature with increased health and feelings of happiness. People who spend time in nature report that they feel less sluggish, have more energy and feel more vital.
Let’s take a look at some of the many benefits of getting outdoors.
The best stress reliever is right outside
You are probably aware that physical activity helps reduce stress and anxiety. But being in the wild increases the benefits. In an experiment conducted in Japan, participants walked in either an urban center or a forest. Both walks were equal in length and difficulty. During the walk, their heart rate, heart rate variability, and blood pressure were measured. The participants’ moods, stress levels, and other psychological markers were assessed. The results? Participants who walked in the forest had significantly lower heart rates. They also reported less anxiety and improved moods than those who had walked in urban environments.
Participants in similar studies showed higher activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain in which deactivation is related to anxiety and depression. The beneficial effects of walking in the forest went well beyond the beneficial effects of exercise alone.
Spending time in the wild increases creativity
We live in a noisy world. Technology has invaded every area of our lives and demands our constant attention. Scientists believe that this information bombardment is not good for our brains, leading to mental fatigue and burnout. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain involved in multitasking and higher-order critical thinking. We need the restorative powers of nature to let the prefrontal cortex recover from the onslaught. Doing so will allow us to be more open to problem-solving and creativity. One study reported that participants were 50 percent more creative after spending time backpacking on the trail.
Spending time in the wild makes you a better person
In a series of experiments conducted in 2014, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the ways exposure to nature affects prosocial behaviors. They concluded that not only is spending time in nature good for you, it actually makes you a kinder, more caring person. Other studies agree that nature influences the tendency to be generous, trusting and helpful to others.
Being in nature just makes you feel more alive
It is clear that being outdoors makes us feel better physically and mentally. Many people say that it simply makes them feel more alive and vital. How much exposure to nature is necessary to reap the benefits? Nobody really knows for sure. Possibly we need more than just an occasional whiff of fresh air. Experienced backpackers have suggested that it takes at least three days to let go of the tensions and technology that rule our everyday lives.
Nature is available for everyone
Clearly, there is something about getting out into nature that is beneficial for us, physically and mentally. The good news is you can find it everywhere. Not sure where to look? First, do some research on local, state and national parks in your area. Also look into local nature preserves. Visiting grand and spectacular places, such as the Grand Tetons or Voyager’s National Park, is wonderful and life-changing, but smaller doses of nature will also help. Just a walk in a quiet place with a few trees and some grass can be amazingly soothing.
You may wish to find a group of like-minded people to share ideas, equipment, and transportation. If you live in a cold climate, get yourself good winter clothing and boots. It will make all the difference. The winter white world is beautiful, too. Don’t put off your nature time until everything else on your list is done. Plan smaller visits into your schedule whenever possible. You will be healthier, happier and more productive after spending a little time in the wild and wonderful world of nature.
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