Getting outdoors can make a blah day brighter.
Nature is a universal tonic, with studies reporting al fresco benefits including decreased tension, anxiety and depression.
Doctors can now prescribe two hours of outdoor time a week to patients experiencing a variety of health conditions, including mental health concerns. A new partnership with Parks Canada includes the ability to prescribe free passes to Canada’s national parks. The unique, evidence-based nature prescription program PaRx lists improved mood and reduced stress and anxiety as side effects of outdoor medication.
I self-prescribe time outside, both preventatively and curatively, and have reaped the benefits. I know it helps, but why does it feel so good to get out?
There’s science behind why we love to sniff things out there, taking in all the spicy, clean, rich, green, cool and warm scents. Trees and plants release phytoncides which are antimicrobial volatile substances designed to protect them from harm. Spending time inhaling these chemicals causes a bodily response increasing natural killer cells, which are those that attack cancer and virus infected cells.
Along with everything listed below, the resulting enhanced immune function is part of why sucking in a chest full of sweet, fresh air feels so good. The invigorating feeling is like none other. Often after a walk I feel motivated, alive and refreshed. Again, I’m not alone: reduced fatigue and confusion is seen as a benefit of getting outdoors too, thanks in part to natural aromas and the other sensory stimulating aspects of the wild.
Nature helps shift us into parasympathetic activity and decreases cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Parasympathetic activity is the body at rest, where it keeps itself busy metabolizing, digesting and relaxing. The opposite, sympathetic nervous activity, is our bodies response to stressors. Our daily lives are full of them, sending us into fight or flight mode. Sometimes it can be hard to let go of the tension and worry, because the way our body responds is an involuntary product of our surroundings. After spending some time basking in the sun or strolling through the forest, I can feel the tension melt and flow out of my body, to be absorbed by the mosses or carried away on the wind.
It can be hard to stay focused and motivated throughout a day. Working or learning from home is especially tough on concentration. If you feel like you are scrambling through sliding shale out of a mental slump and losing ground, wrangle a walk or similar outdoor activity into your day. Studies show nature can restore attention and increase our capacity to focus.
Spending time in natural environments can be correlated with reduced symptoms in children with ADHD, with studies citing “the greener a child’s typical play settings, the less severe his or her general symptoms.”
Although my baby is a smiley companion, his wordless vocabulary means our shared hours through the day and night don’t quite count as social interactions. That’s where hiking with others comes in. The promise of views and fresh air is easy bait, and generally results in time with a speaking human.
A love for blue skies, views and pretty things is universal, so its easy to find things to talk about. Both lighthearted and serious chats happen while walking side by side.
There are no awkward silences. Rather, they are comfortable and natural, especially during elevation gains when laboured breathing makes words hard to come by. Of all the activities I do with family and friends, getting out into nature seems to facilitate some of the best social interaction and strengthens ties.
Again, this isn’t limited to my experience. Studies show time in the wild during the school day improves children’s relationships with their teachers and classmates. Not only does nature play improve confidence and skill, it paves the way to genuine connection.
Human to human connection isn’t the only result of time outdoors. Have you ever heard of biophilia? It describes that potent feeling and need to connect with the wild and was a term I was very excited to discover. Experiences in and with nature fosters an intense bond with the creatures, flora and beauty, and is why we care about nature at all. Earth is an amazing place, and when you witness some of the wonders it produces, from the ant carrying away a proportionally massive chunk of your granola bar to the rich, saturated sunset sky, you can’t help but feel positive emotions. A powerful one, genuine awe, is that overwhelming feeling in short supply in our day to day, but an infinite outdoor resource.
Getting outdoors won’t fix the hard things you are going through. But during the hardest moments of my life, getting outdoors helped me get away for a moment, process, distract, get some perspective and return with a fresh and sunnier outlook. If nothing else, the solitude of the wilderness and a good workout gave me room to get rid of a few of those bottled-up emotions.
What does nature do for you?