Get Active in Nature- 15 Mental and Physical Benefits

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Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive. The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation.~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Beautiful colors in the Fall on the Six Shooter Trail- an amazing hike!

 

{Hello my Outdoor Friends!  I want to start off by thanking you for taking time to read this article.  If you have thoughts you’d like to share with me about this article, you can leave a comment at the end or shoot me an email at mistyoutdoorsinaz@gmail.com.   😊}

 

The benefits of being active in nature almost seem too good to be true.  …  In this article, you will learn the physical and mental benefits of being active in nature, how it will increase your productivity and additional resources to get you started!

 

Effects from being Indoors

 

Spending time indoors is obviously something that is very difficult to get away from in this day and age.  However, the stats are now leaning very heavy towards inactivity, high tech use, and spending an enormous amount of time inside.

An article in Nature reports that the average American spending a total of 93 percent of their lives inside (87 percent in homes/buildings and the other 6 percent in a car).

If you take our life expectancy of 79 years or so – this results in 73 years separated from the very beauty of nature that can drastically change our lives for the better.

 

 

Another study by EPA New England estimates that indoor pollutants can be as 2-5 times higher than outdoor concentrations and are potential cause of heart disease, respiratory disease, and possibly even cancer.

Other contributing factors-fluorescent lighting & computer screens can lead to migraines, mercury poisoning, back problems, and eye issues.

Living a sedentary life indoors can also increase our chances of psychological problems, cancer, diabetes, memory loss and erectile dysfunction.

Alright, so enough with the doom and gloom.  Let’s look at the GOOD stuff!

 

Physical Benefits

One of our MeetUp Member enjoying a hike in the Superstition Mountains.

 

 

Through being active outdoors- you are an ACTIVE participant in life. You make the choice of when, where, and how long you will engage in your chosen activity. You are making a positive choice every time you decide to get off the couch and out the door.

Being indoors, watching TV or scrolling through Social Media promotes a sedentary and consuming type lifestyle.  This is a passive way to live and often times can lead to negative thoughts towards others when you see them on Instagram having fun in a beautiful location.

Being active in nature is a way to remain fit and healthy for your entire life.  Below are 7 motivating reasons to be active in nature.

More Fun to Exercise Outdoors

On  a recent hike I went 10 miles and it felt like 5.  The surrounding terrain had me captivated the entire time and I couldn’t wait for each step to see what was around the corner.  The only scenery that changes in gyms are the people.

You can also get  a group of friends together for a walk or a hike.  You’re able to laugh and talk with eachother  vs. a gym where you are solo on the machines.

It is also a blast to explore new places in your State and get out of your comfort zone. Visiting new places adds spice to your life, variety and excitement that going to a gym could never provide.

 

Better Sleep

Due to increased time indoors, sleep patterns have become disrupted for many people.  How we sleep is regulated by our internal body clock- also known as circadian rhythm.  This rhythm is linked with the patterns of the sun.  Too much time indoors being exposed to artificial light throws off our internal clocks.

You can reset this clock by getting outdoors into the sunlight.  A study from the University of Colorado proved that a few nights camping outdoors resets your internal clock to a more natural and healthy setting.

 

My little guy taking a nap after helping to set up camp.

 

Strenuous exercise outdoors is even better for improving your odds of getting a great night’s sleep at the end of the day. Those who are alert and perky during the day sleep longer and more soundly.  Body temperature also impacts how we sleep.  The temperature in our bodies increase during the day and drop at night-a clue to go to sleep.  Hiking for example, can raise and keep the body temperature as much as two degrees.  At night, you’ll have this drop in temperature , cooling your body which helps you sleep better.

 

Increased levels of Vitamin D

A deficiency in Vitamin D can lead to a host of issues, including dementia, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s and even cancer. The most abundant source of Vitamin D is sunlight. Despite this being fairly common knowledge, many folks don’t get enough of it!

A study from John Hopkins University found a link between exercising outdoors and vitamin D levels.  Being active in nature maximizes our health boosting Vitamin D quota.  The more we are active outdoors, the higher our Vitamin D levels and lowers our risk of stroke, heart disease, and a number of other illnesses.

AZ Hikers get plenty of Vitamin D

 

Lowers Blood Pressure

The great news for outdoor lovers is that moderately intense exercise such as hiking or walking are effective in reducing the risk of high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. You don’t have to be an Ultra Marathon runner to get the benefits!

A six-year study by Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory in CA. analyzed more than 30,000 runners and 15,000 walkers.  The findings concluded that walking and hiking had similar reductions in risk as the more vigorous group of runners. A short hike can reduce blood pressure by 4-10 points.

Pain Reduction

One common source of pain for people is inflammation. There are varying levels of severity. Factors that can increase chronic inflammation include: being older, obesity, poor diet (high in fats and sugars), smoking, stress, sleep problems, and low sex hormones.

A study from the Biomed Environmental Science showed that a method called forest bathing drastically reduced symptoms of inflammation and stress with those who took part in the study.  They concluded that, “Forest bathing is beneficial to human health, perhaps through preventative effects related to pathological factors.”

Also, research shows that natural sunlight can help to reduce pain.  In one study, surgery patients who were exposed to high intensity sunlight felt less stress, and pain and took less pain medication.

Immune System

It is the Japanese that first used the method called, Forest Bathing to boost their Immune System and overall mental and physical health. Studies show the phytoncides (airborne chemicals from trees) has been shown to increase levels of white blood cells. These white blood cells help us to fight off infections and disease.

 

Plenty of fresh air and phytoncides in the White Mountains.

 

The phytoncides are antibacterial and antifungal which helps the plants and trees fight off diseases.  When we breathe these in, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of the white blood cells (aka natural killer cells).  White blood cells kill the virus and tumor infected cells in our bodies.

  • In one Japanese study- those who went on a 3 night, 2 day Forest bathing excursion had an increase in their white blood cells for more than 30 days.

 

  • Researchers who used the Profile of Mood States test found that those who went on forest bathing trips had significantly decreased scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue..

 

In my opinion, this is a solid case right here for more Medical Specialists to start actually prescribing the outdoors vs. doling out prescriptions!  This is a method that is starting to be used by some in the Medical profession, but is only now scratching the surface.  If you are interested in this, you may not be able to get a plan going with a “traditional” Doctor.  Nature prescriptions for the time being may be given by more by Naturopathic Doctors.

 

Helps Your Vision

One of the greatest risks to the health of our eyes is from spending too much time on the computer. Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) can lead to dry or red eyes, blurred vision, headaches, migraines and irritation around the eyes and happens when we spend too much time in front of laptops, desktops, tablets, and phones.

One study has shown that nearsightedness has seen a 17 percent increase in the last 50 years in the US.

You can drastically reduce your chances of having any of these happen to you by getting into nature and looking at objects that are further away. This is why nature is ideal!  Go to places that have beautiful open meadows or stands of Aspen trees and allow your eyes to rest easily on the beauty of nature.

 

Green as it gets- Another remarkable place in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest.

 

Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson 

 

Hiking Benefits

Since I love to hike and provide a program for hiking, of course I needed to add the specific benefits of hiking!

  • Hiking reduces your chances of heart disease.
  • Hiking on a regular basis can lower your blood pressure by 4 to 10 points.
  • A frequent walk in the woods can help reduce your chances of getting diabetes. If you already have the disease, hiking, combined with a proper diet, can reduce or even eliminate the need for insulin therapy.
  • As a weight-bearing exercise, hiking can help stave off osteoporosis.
  • A regular exercise program centered around hiking, coupled with a sound diet, can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Depending upon your pace and other factors, you can burn up to 500 calories per hour hiking.
  • Hiking helps with focus, concentration, and also effective at reducing stress and relieving anxiety.
  • Hiking improves muscle fitness.
  • Hiking lower your risk of high cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • Hiking can lower your risk of colon and breast cancer.
  • After a good hike you’ll sleep better.

Sources: American Heart Association, Diabetes Institute, WebMD.com, University of Southern California, American Cancer Society, National Sleep Foundation.

 

Mental Benefits

The connection between your physical and mental state is very prominent.  If you are in a poor mental state, then it often leads to a poor physical condition as well. This connection may seem very obvious, but is often overlooked by people.  Think of this example- when you are sad (mental state) you may cry(physical state) as a result.  Here’s another example – when you are very happy (Mental state), it causes you to smile (physical state).

I’ve written an article about how our thoughts shape our fitness- you can read it here.

Reduces Stress

Stress can wreak all sorts of havoc on the body. I’ve known people  that have had so much stress in their lives that it caused them numerous physical health issues.  Electronic devices, daily demands and people can be some of the causes of stress in our daily lives.

The great news is however by spending more time outdoors, you can lower your stress levels considerably!  In one study researchers in Holland found that 30 minutes of gardening was enough to reduce participants cortisol levels significantly compared to those who read a book for the same timeframe.  And back to our Japanese method of forest bathing, studies indicate that walking in nature for as little as 20 minutes also greatly reduces stress and anxiety.

 

Decreases  Depression

Easy to be in a good mood in the Great Outdoors!

 

According to an article -from the Harvard Medical School, the rate of antidepressant use in this country among peoples ages 12 and older has increased by almost 400% between 1988-1994 and 2005-2008.  These numbers are astounding- and should shock anyone reading this!

In my opinion (I am not a Doctor), but I would go the Nature Route first BEFORE going to a Doctor!  Here is one of the comments to the mentioned article that I want to share,

“By the way, his situation worsened to the point of suicidal thoughts with the use of antidepressants.  That is why this experience left a bitter taste in my mouth” ~ John Doe

Yes- these so called anti-depressants have actually caused people to commit suicide. This is heartbreaking and completely unnecessary!!

Okay- so enough with my soap box. So what can you do if you are depressed?

Are you surprised that I would say go into nature and be active.  A study from Stanford University found that those who went for a walk in nature or green spaces, showed less neural activity in the area of the brain associated with depression than in other participants walking in Urban places. Immersing yourself in nature on a regular basis can not only cut the risk of becoming depressed in the first place but also reduces the symptoms of depression for those already suffering from it.

Finally, the combination of the soothing sights and sounds in nature combined with physical activity helps to alleviate bad moods and reduce symptoms of anxiety. It’s all interrelated- the Vitamin D exposure discussed earlier also decreases anxiety and depression.

 

Get Runners High

To get the benefits of what is called, “runners high”, you don’t have to compete in a marathon.  This high is a result of our bodies releasing endorphins during exercise (that walking can produce as well). Endorphins are chemicals released in the brain during activity that have been proven to improve our mood and mental state.

 

Be Present & Happy

City environments have loads of people, traffic, pollution, billboards, and concrete.  These elements can keep us in a state of confusion and give us feelings of being completely overwhelmed.

It can be difficult to stay happy when you have long commutes, sit in a cube all day getting interrupted, attending useless meetings, and receiving a barrage of electronic messages. It can be difficult to enjoy times like these and be “present” in these moments.

When we have this much stimuli coming at us on a constant basis, and thinking about  about what we need to do next, etc. , it makes it very difficult to enjoy the moment.

One researcher states, ” “When you use your cell phone to talk, text, shoot photos, or whatever else you can do with your cell phone, you’re tapping the prefrontal cortex and causing reductions in cognitive resources.”

This is why getting into nature is so important- to get away from the texts, emails, and artificial structures within the City.

Would you be thinking about work in a place like this?

 

You can be present in nature, where your mind can relax significantly. Your mind can be focused on only your surroundings- and not what happened yesterday or all the work that waits you.  You can experience joy when looking upon a large oak vs. a slew of incoming texts and emails.

Natural settings encourage involuntary focus, where our vision and attention are open and relaxed, not jerked around from one stimulus to another (like oncoming traffic).

In a forest for instance, your gaze softens and opens. The green environment allows you to relax which makes you more mentally receptive. For these reasons, you can think and see more clearly in nature. Natural beauty soothes us and relaxes the mind immensely.

 

Increases Generosity and Kindness

This may be a hard one for people to believe, but there are studies to back this up! From my personal experience, I would say this is very true.  I am so happy in nature, and in awe of nature’s splendor that it makes me want to give back.

In a series of experiments published in 2014, researchers from the University of California Berkeley studied the impact of nature on the willingness to be trusting, generous, and helpful towards others while also taking into consideration factors that could influence this relationship.

The first part of this study was to show the participants nature scenes (the beauty levels were rated independently)

The second part was to observe how they behaved playing two different games that measured trust and generosity. For those who were exposed to the more beautiful scenes, they were more trusting and generous in those games than those who saw less beautiful scenes.  This end result appeared to be due to corresponding increase in positive emotions.

 

Creates Positive Memories

My kids and their friends love to camp & fish.

 

Mom and Dad, “Remember that weekend where we all sat around and watched TV”, said NO KID ever!

Give your family memories that will last them a lifetime. Memories they can savor and fall back on in times of challenging times in their lives.

In my opinion, one of the greatest gifts you can give to your kids is taking them camping, going on a hike or to the lake to catch a fish.  These are where the real moments in life happen and what they will always remember.  My kids absolutely love going camping and hiking- and they always talk about the trips we’ve taken.

For those of you reading this, I hope that you are able to recall fond memories of getting outdoors with your family.

 

Productivity Benefits

Our attention spans have a lot of competition – the daily to do’s, emails, texts, meetings..the list goes on.  People have a tendency to work even harder when they feel they are not being productive. The best solution is often to do the complete opposite of this!  Getting away from your computer and getting into nature will actually make you more productive.

 

Take the time to watch the sunset- you never know how many you have left.

 

Enhances Creativity

To expand on my intro for this section, being busy does not equal productivity.  Putting in 60 plus hours a week is not always the solution to accomplishing your work.  A counter intuitive approach for many is to set a limit on the number of hours you work – and make time to get into nature instead.

Having one or two solid ideas can literally save you hundreds of hours. Being able to think through a problem before taking action can also save you loads of time.  Getting into nature will increase your creativity and problem solving skills- which in turn gives you better ideas. These ideas could save you countless hours in spinning your wheels.

One study done with a group of Backpackers found they scored 50 % higher on a creativity test after spending a few days in the wild without their electronics.

Some of the best ideas I’ve ever had I thought of while hiking. I wasn’t even consciously thinking about the issue/problem -it just came to me.

Being outdoors without your phone and other distractions restores your attention, enhances higher order thinking and boosts creativity.

A surge in creativity happens once our attention is restored.  The constant demand of attending meetings, responding to texts and emails, and the general business of life places a huge burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  This is the region that is involved in multi-tasking and higher order thinking.

All of these small demands add up to make us very distracted and makes our brains tired.  This in turn makes it difficult to focus, and come up with new ideas.  Research shows when people are in nature, the prefrontal cortex is less active.

No need to go on a 10 mile hike to achieve these results.  A 25 minute walk in a green space is enough to give your brain a rest and boost your cognitive functioning.

Sparks Imagination

The imagination network is crucial to your level of creativity.  It pulls from different regions across the brain- including the hippocampus.  This is the area where memories are formed and stored.  The prefrontal cortex is involved in self focused processing- which includes autobiographical memories and planning. Our imagination network is what lets us dream, explore and imagine other perspectives and scenarios, imagine the future and create meaning from our experiences.

 

Try outdoor photography to bring out your creativity and imagination.

 

 

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson 

 

How to Make Time to Shine in the Outdoors

That AZ sun is Bright!  🙂

 

According to Parkinsons Law- work expands to fill the time available for it’s completion.  Experts in this field often recommend cutting a project timeline in half.  So what does this have to do with making time for the outdoors?

Well- if you are one of the thousands of people that work 50+ hours a week and make no time for yourself, then I highly recommend you give this a go.  Force yourself to complete your work within a 30-40 hour work week. Do your best to give yourself a shorter timeline for your work/projects- I think you’ll be surprised at how much you get accomplished.  Another tool I used is the Pomodoro technique. I’ve written about it here.

Decide on the activity and then create a plan. – start with looking at your schedule.  Write down the days and times you CAN go every week.

Be an “Influencer” in your Corporate Wellness Program: Get involved- initiate a hiking group that can take off from work every week.  Prove that you can be just as productive.   When I was in the Corp. World, I had a boss that took our team hiking during “Business hours”.  We got more done even though we took an afternoon off to go hiking.  We knew if we completed our work then a hike was our reward!  Feel free to contact me if you’d like some ideas on how you can approach your workplace about a hiking program.

 

Here are some additional tips so you can get yourself into the Sweet Outdoors!

 

Prioritize

Do you have time to be on social media every day?  If so, have you ever logged how much time you spend?   Given all of the benefits, we have more reasons than ever to shut off the TV, put down our phones, and even turn down that invitation to Happy Hour.  If your health is a priority then you will find a way to get active.

 

Join a MeetUp Group or Club

I run a MeetUp (that is no cost) so of course I am partial to this platform!  This is really a great way to get started if you want to go hiking, mountain biking, or even play tennis.  With joining a MeetUp you always have others to go with and motivate you!  I did a video on the reasons to join MeetUp- you can watch it Here.

 

Be Pro Active

Start researching the National Forests, State Parks, Trails, and Parks in your area.  Get excited about planning your trips and taking your family.  The U.S alone has over 200,000 square miles of protected land, 60 National Parks, and over 10,000 State Parks!  The best part is that it’s a minimal cost compared to a Disney Trip or a Cruise.

Don’t feel like you need to go on an epic journey either. Many studies document the positive effects of  urban green spaces on our health.  One study in Copenhagen revealed that for those who lived a short distance from a garden or park had less stress and a lower body mass index.   About 85% of the US population live in urban areas and may not always have access to remote forests and parks.

 

Summary

Do you believe me when I said being active in nature is almost too good to be true?  It’s exciting to know how much nature can change your life for the better.  Whether you want to lose weight, lower blood pressure,  heal pain and anxiety, Green must be a GO in your life.

As I stated in the beginning of the article, I appreciate you taking the time to read this.  I also greatly appreciate comments and feedback!  Please feel free to leave a comment here- or email me at mistyoutdoorsinaz@gmail.com.

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