The mountains were calling last March, but I couldn’t go. Like most vacation destinations, our favorite Colorado ski resort shut down to control the spread of COVID-19. And so, like most American families who’d planned Spring Break getaways, my family hunkered down at home.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that outdoor recreation was a lifesaver in the weeks that followed. Runs in Forest Park kept me healthy when my gym closed. The woods gave me a safe space to scream out my quarantine frustrations (thankfully, only small woodland creatures witnessed these outbursts).
And some days, venturing outside reminded me that life goes on even when it felt like the world was ending. Emma Klues, vice president of communications and outreach for Great Rivers Greenway in St. Louis, echoes that sentiment.
“Public common spaces invite us to connect in different ways,” said Klues. “Even a nod from a stranger at a distance helps people feel more connected right now.”
If one positive came out of this quarantine for me, it’s an even greater appreciation for the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in nature. And while some of the perks of outdoor recreation are subjective (because, you know, it just feels good to be outside), others are backed by science.
Physical Health Benefits
The physical health benefits of outdoor activities like walking, running, and cycling are well-documented. Getting in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week improves bone and brain health and lowers the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic conditions.
Of course, you could walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike, but there’s some magic to doing those things — and other activities, like paddling and climbing — outside.
“There are several theories that propose inherent characteristics to activity in a natural environment that further promote health and well-being,” said Caitlin Rogers, DO, a family medicine physician and obstetrician with BJC Medical Group at Progress West Hospital in O’Fallon, Missouri.
“It’s difficult to conduct controlled studies to test this, but findings suggest that outdoor physical activity, when compared to activity in a ‘synthetic’ environment, reduces negative emotions and increases attention,” Rogers said.
Mental Health Benefits
As protests sprung up in cities across the US in late 2014, Outdoor Afro led groups into nature. The national nonprofit, which celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature, held its first “Healing Hike” in Oakland, California, after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Jr., by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Outdoor Afro has since promoted hikes throughout the country to help participants come together and emotionally process violent acts against African American men, women, and children.
Yanira Castro of Charlotte, North Carolina, who is the organization’s communications director, points out that it’s easier to let your emotional guard down in nature than it is in offices, churches, and other urban settings where there are specific behavioral expectations.
“Healing Hikes allow participants to fully and authentically be themselves,” said Castro. “When people who attend our events talk about how calm, restored, joyful, and happy they are afterward, that’s a marker of a fantastic event.”
Research suggests that water features, open spaces, landscape patterns, and other natural wonders increase the perception of safety and survival — both important in healing from emotional trauma. Case in point, a large 2010 Dutch study found that adults with higher percentages of green space within a 3-kilometer radius from home were less impacted by stressful life events.
The mechanisms for this aren’t fully understood, but there are many theories as to how nature acts as a buffer against both acute trauma and day-to-day stress. One of these theories, called the attention restoration theory, suggests that natural environmental stimuli engage the brain in ways that don’t require much mental effort. In this way, spending time outside can restore mental focus and fend off attention fatigue.
In short, outdoor recreation can make you happier, calmer, and more focused.
For Anthony Beasley, a group leader for Outdoor Afro in St. Louis, this is a major motivation for getting outside and for helping other people to connect with nature. “The number one benefit is getting out of the rat race, centering myself, being in nature, and separating myself from day-to-day life in the city,” Beasley said.
Not convinced yet? Consider this: A growing body of evidence has linked spending time outside with measurable changes in the body. In a 2010 study, levels of the stress hormone cortisol were nearly 16 percent lower in men after a 10- to 20-minute walk in the forest.
Other studies suggest that being outside lowers blood pressure and pulse and reduces activity in parts of the brain responsible for negative self-thoughts.
So, the next time the quarantine (or life in general) makes you feel sad or anxious, head for the hills or the rivers or the trails. Even five minutes in nature could make a noticeable impact on your mental state.
Making the Most of Your Nature Time
All time spent outdoors is time well-spent. However, there are a few steps you can take make the most of it.
- Aim for at least two hours per week, either in one long session or multiple shorter sessions. In one study including nearly 20,000 adults, those who spent at least 120 minutes per week outside reported better health and had a significantly greater sense of well-being. The benefits were not as strong in those who spent only 90 minutes per week outside.
- Get some morning sun. Studies suggest that morning sunlight is especially helpful for regulating levels of the hormones melatonin and serotonin. In a 2017 study, workers who were exposed to morning sunlight slept better and reported better mental health than workers who had less exposure to bright light in the morning.
- Head for the woods. Forests have been shown to lower blood pressure, pulse, and cortisol levels more significantly than urban outdoor environments.
Author: Kimberly Yawitz is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.