Digging in the garden, walking by a river, and enjoying some sun during lunch do more than just lift your spirits — they’re good for your physical health, too.
An ordinary walk outside can be an extraordinary experience. You might smell the ozone before a storm, witness a mating ritual between birds, bump into a neighbor for a brief conversation that lightens your mood. Yet day after day, most of us leave these gifts from the great outdoors unopened.
The typical American spends only 5 percent of his or her time outside, reports Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix. That includes our children, many of whom no longer get outdoors for recess at school.
Journalist Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the anxiety, insomnia, hypertension, addiction, and loneliness that studies have linked to a lack of outdoor activity — though we might not recognize the problem as such. “Many children and young adults simply don’t know what they’re missing,” says Louv.
We all face barriers. We may live far from green spaces or work endless extra hours. We might catch up on Facebook in the evening rather than take a 15-minute stroll.
Yet humans evolved in wild environments, notes Frank Forencich, founder of the primal-fitness organization Exuberant Animal. “Now we’re living in this totally new world . . . and it’s causing all sorts of health problems,” he says.
The diversity of experiences we encounter outdoors fulfills a range of human needs, says Kenton Whitman, educator and founder of ReWild University, where he trains students to reconnect to the natural world. These environments allow us to strike a balance “between feeling nurtured and being challenged. Think watching the sun set over a pristine lake or riding out a rainstorm that hits when you’re canoeing to your next camp.”
Though many struggle with the feeling that there’s no time to go outside, engaging with nature is more than a luxury. “We’re increasingly burdened by chronic ailments — from myopia [nearsightedness] and vitamin-D deficiency to obesity and depression — made worse by time spent indoors,” Williams notes.
Still, it doesn’t take much for our bodies to reverse course. “Just five minutes spent in a pleasant natural setting will start to shift your mood, cognition, and nervous system,” she explains. “After 15 minutes in nature, your blood pressure lowers, your stress hormones drop, and your thinking brain gives way to your sensory brain.”
According to David Strayer, PhD, who studies nature’s effect on the brain at the University of Utah, time outdoors also enhances creativity and boosts performance and focus. He hypothesizes that it allows the prefrontal cortex, which governs executive function and problem-solving, to relax. The brain switches to default mode, drawing from the areas that control memory, reflection, and imagination. With the mind at ease, “Eureka!” moments have the space they need to surface.
“Sometimes we have to see that taking some time in nature actually increases our productivity to convince ourselves that it’s worth our while,” Whitman says. “Eventually, though, it becomes self-rewarding.”
There’s plenty of science to support the need for outdoors time. Discover how specific elements of the natural world can improve our health.
The Giving Tree
“Trees might be our single best tool for urban salvation,” Williams says. Not only do they capture carbon from the atmosphere and produce oxygen through photosynthesis, but studies suggest just being near them can improve human health.
Stanford researchers found that walking in a leafy urban area for 90 minutes kept subjects from dwelling on negative thoughts. Participants who spent time in places with grass, shrubs, and oak trees demonstrated lower activity in the part of the brain associated with rumination.
Forest bathing — venturing into the woods to soak up the sights, sounds, and smells — is a Japanese stress-reduction practice. Shinrin-yoku originated in the late 20th century to counteract the nation’s workaholic culture. But the practice has existed for centuries, notes Amos Clifford, founder of the California-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.
“Remember Jesus going into the wilderness for 40 days? And the Buddha’s first great awakening sitting at the base of the Bodhi Tree? This is something that’s built into our psyches,” Clifford says.
Forest bathing is simple, but it can be more than just a walk in the woods. “Trained forest-bathing guides can help people slow down and drink in the forest through all their senses,” he explains. “In the forest, when we are fully present, we naturally relax. Our nervous systems reset, which mobilizes our natural capacity for self-healing and wellness.”
Similarly, an absence of trees may be surprisingly detrimental. One 2013 study tracked mortality rates in neighborhoods where the emerald ash borer had destroyed large numbers of ash trees. Counties hit hardest by the tree-destroying pest experienced a shocking 10 percent increase in expected mortality, largely from cardiovascular and lower-respiratory disease.
Whether this increase was caused by worsened air quality, changes in stress, or both, it’s evident that the presence of these “tall, green, comforting friends” makes a positive difference in our health and well-being, notes Williams.
- Take regular walks in the nearest wooded area.
- Position your desk to face a window framing trees.
- Swap your annual urban getaway for a camping trip, or head to eco-tourist sites to encounter mangroves, old-growth forests, and other novel tree species.
- Sign up for a forest-bathing retreat at www.natureandforesttherapy.org.
- Don’t underestimate the value of a walk around the block. Louv points out that even brief encounters with greenery count.
The risks of skin cancer are real, but avoiding the sun altogether presents its own perils. The sun triggers production of vitamin D, and because most cells in the body have D receptors, it boosts everything from bone strength to immunity. (For more on vitamin D, visit “Vitamin D: What You Need to Know“.)
Some sun exposure is also good for the eyes, especially when we’re young. Williams points out that myopia, or nearsightedness, is endemic in East Asia and other parts of the world where “indoor-itis” is the norm. “The sun primes the retinas’ dopamine receptors, and those in turn control the shape of the developing eye,” she explains. Sun exposure helps the eye maintain a healthy distance between lens and retina, which prevents nearsightedness.
Finally, the sun regulates our bodily rhythms. “Natural light is the great synchronizing force for human physiology,” explains Forencich. Schedules that conflict with natural-light cycles can cause many health problems, including insomnia and acute and chronic health conditions.
Early-morning sun exposure is your best tool for resetting circadian rhythms, says Kenneth Wright, PhD, a professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado. Morning sun helps reinforce a healthy sleep–wake cycle, cuing the body to be alert and energized. Wright also recommends dimming the lights in the evening to mimic the waning light in the sky, and maintaining regular bedtimes and wake times. (For more on circadian rhythms, visit “Get in Sync.”)
- Drink your morning coffee outdoors to soak in some energizing light. This can also be a helpful antidote to depression. (For more alternative approaches to depression, visit “A Path Out of Depression.”)
- Get 10 to 20 minutes of afternoon sunlight on your skin, sans sunblock, for a boost of vitamin D. (The darker your skin, the more exposure you’ll need.)
- Wear shorts. Legs are ideal for sun exposure, as they offer plenty of surface area and are less likely than the face, hands, and neck to suffer the effects of overexposure.
- Skip the sunglasses occasionally to give your eyes a chance to adapt to brighter light.
“Healthy waters send a signal that all is well,” says ocean scientist Wallace Nichols, PhD, author of Blue Mind. We cognitively process natural environments more easily than man-made ones, he explains, so it’s easier to relax around water. And our brains recognize big bodies of water as a source of hydration, hygiene, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, so simply looking at them rewards our survival instinct.
When we immerse ourselves in water, the benefits multiply. Jumping into the ocean is like floating in a massive Epsom-salts bath. The atmosphere at the beach is filled with negatively charged ions, Nichols notes, which studies have found to elevate mood and lower blood-lactate levels (which rise when we’re stressed). Submerging your face and body in water can ease anxiety, reducing your heart rate by as much as 25 percent.
Even the sounds of the ocean are soothing and can offer a space for intimacy. “It creates a sense of privacy or solitude, as only those at close range can hear our words,” Nichols says. “The rhythm of the ocean lulls us.” (For more on Wallace’s research, visit “Blue Mind.”)
- Find a nearby lake, river, or beach you can visit for weekly swims, runs, or walks.
- Take swimming, snorkeling, or standup-paddleboarding lessons to give yourself a reason to regularly return to the water.
- Volunteer for lake, river, or coastal cleanup projects.
- Guiltlessly schedule a beach vacation. Consider it an investment in your health.
Breath of Fresh Air
The average student in the Finnish education system, which routinely ranks among the best in the world, spends 15 minutes of every hour outdoors. When Williams asked a sixth-grade teacher in Finland to explain this practice, she got a simple answer: “When they go outside and get fresh air, they think more clearly.”
As it turns out, fresh air does more than clear our heads. Williams cites a 2012 study showing that rooms in a Portland, Ore., hospital with better outdoor-air circulation harbored healthier bacterial profiles than those with poorer ventilation.
Fresh air contains phytoncides, natural compounds that plants and trees release to repel insects and disease. “Humans appear to get benefits when we breathe in these compounds,” Whitman explains. One study found that breathing phytoncides helped relieve stress and increase production of immune-supporting natural killer cells.
Outdoor activities also provide a break from indoor air pollution. New furniture, carpets, and air fresheners often contain volatile organic com-pounds, which can disrupt our hormonal and respiratory functions. Buildings designed with energy-saving sealed windows can trap these pollutants.
When we can open the windows, the fresh air brings in a little dirt that helps increase the microbial diversity indoors; it also helps us adapt more effectively to weather changes.
“Our bodies have evolved to respond to temperature fluctuations, and that appears to be good for our metabolic functioning,” says Williams. Sweat helps flush out toxins, improve circulation, and clear pores. Research also reveals that antimicrobial qualities in perspiration help protect against infection. (For more on the health benefits of sweating, visit “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sweat.”)
- Eat your lunch outside.
- Roll down the car windows when you’re on the open road.
- Take time to smell plants and trees when you’re outside; you’ll naturally take deeper breaths. What’s more, you’ll be inhaling immune-supporting phytoncides — compounds found in the essential oils that create plants’ and trees’ specific scents.
- Take your yoga mat to a nearby park and practice some pranayama breathing.
People with pets — particularly dogs — are markedly healthier than those without. Living with a dog makes us far more likely to spend time outside, according to one report. The reasons are obvious: Dogs encourage us to take them outside every time they need a bathroom break.
One 2015 study found that sustained eye contact between humans and their dogs elicits the same release of oxytocin — the love hormone — that occurs during mother–child bonding. Medical anthropologist Kim Kelly, PhD, who researches the role pets play in enhancing the human microbiome at the University of Arizona, says she couldn’t ignore the way dogs also bonded with older humans during a recent study. “I had one woman tell me she doesn’t know how she smiled before,” Kelly says.
In addition to these benefits, several studies have found that children who are exposed to animals early in life are less likely to develop allergies.
- If you have a dog, take longer, more frequent walks together.
- Consider letting your pup snooze with you in your bedroom. A Mayo Clinic study suggests this can improve sleep quality.
- If you don’t or can’t have a pet, consider volunteering at an animal shelter.
- When you’re outdoors, pay attention to the birds and animals you see; tuning in to wildlife helps calm the fight-or-flight instinct.
- Book a farm retreat, where you can help milk cows, collect eggs, and care for other animals. (To learn more about animal sanctuaries, visit “Safe Havens for Animals.”)
Dirt provides us with nourishment at many levels. Horticulture-therapy studies, for instance, point to such benefits as lower cortisol levels and increased self-esteem as reasons to get our hands dirty. Some gardening experts describe a “harvest high,” a spike of dopamine associated with growing and collecting food, a trait we may have inherited from our hunter–gatherer ancestors.
Gardening also exposes us to the soil’s microbial diver-sity, which helps bal-ance our microbiomes. Some researchers have even begun studying soil’s microbial mix to find solutions for antibiotic resistance.
If you don’t garden, reaping the benefits of soil might be as easy as going barefoot outdoors. “Earthing,” also known as “grounding,” involves connecting your bare feet directly to the ground. Proponents say this practice can help calm the nervous system and reduce inflammation.
“This healing resource nourishes the body in many ways, including its bioelectrical functions — the heart, the brain, and the immune system,” explains Martin Zucker, coauthor of The Earthing. “Traditional cultures walked barefoot or wore animal-hide footwear; they slept on the ground. All of this allowed transference of energy from the earth.”
Many other wellness programs, such as Whitman’s ReWild University and Forencich’s Exuberant Animal, seek to increase people’s contact with the ground. Whitman believes muck and dirt also improve the immune system.
“Our students live in less-than-hygienic conditions for up to 11 months in the woods with lots of dirt,” he says, “and they generally don’t get sick.”
- Plant and maintain a garden.
- If you don’t have the space or skills for a garden, plant a few containers with herbs and tomatoes.
- Take up an outdoor sport, such as softball, volleyball, or soccer.
- Take barefoot walks on occasion — at the beach, in the park, on your lawn.
- Lie in your backyard and gaze at the clouds or the stars.
This originally appeared as “From the Outside In” in the June 2018 print issue of Experience Life.