Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
6 Aug

How to Turn Your Nature Deficit Into a Nature Surplus

sequoiasThis summer I got an unmistakable itch. A yearning. A calling. It happens every summer. I start getting these admittedly ridiculous, unrealistic, impossible, and yet somehow still unavoidable and alluring thoughts about ditching civilization for a little cabin in the woods somewhere. Maybe a plot of land, some chickens, some livestock (not sure what, maybe cows, goats, and sheep, maybe a pig or two). There’s a river running through it, too, or at least a babbling brook, leading up to a big blue lake that you can see right through to the bottom even though it’s hundreds of feet deep. And trees everywhere, towering green giants that cover the sky and leave just enough room for me to stargaze and spot oncoming storms.

Or maybe it’s the jungle, or the beach, or the desert. Point is: I get this powerful urge to leave civilization behind and strike out for the wild of nature.

This is just a fantasy for me. I’ve never seriously considered taking the plunge and striking out, off the grid. I love my life, I relish my work, I like the creature comforts afforded by modern society, and I love my friends and family. Wouldn’t give that last one up for the world, especially. Why, then, do I still yearn for the wild?

We can’t live without nature. That’s why.

And I don’t mean in the sense that we obtain the very resources on which our lives depend from nature – food, water, shelter, fuel – although that’s true, too. What I mean is that without regular exposure to nature, even if “nature” is just going outside for some fresh air, a person can’t live a full, complete, happy life. It’s evident to me that for humans, like other animals, nature is the “default” environment. It’s the norm. It’s not that spending time in the woods reduces blood pressure, boosts immunity, and lowers stress, as seen in the forest bathing studies. It’s that spending too much time in cities and suburbs raises blood pressure, lowers our immune function, and increases stress. Nature exposure simply restores the normal physiological functions impaired by exposure to civilization. The end result is the same either way – better health – but thinking of nature as the norm and civilization as the aberration underscores the importance of the connection between people and nature and highlights just why nature is so vital for our health and well-being.

I’m not just listening to my gut here, either, nor am I basing my assertions entirely on a personal sentiment I might have. There exists a wide and growing body of scientific evidence supporting my position.

Some skeptics of the importance of the link between human health and nature have claimed that physical activity explains the association. In other words, the only reason green spaces are linked to improved health is that people who have access to green space are more likely to be active. It’s a compelling argument, but a recent study just determined that while some of the cardiovascular health improvements associated with urban green space are due to increased physical activity, it can’t explain all of them.

In one of the coolest pieces of research, one recent study measured the brain responses of people touching different things, including foliage from a plant, synthetic foliage made to feel like the real thing, a piece of fabric, and a piece of aluminum. They also asked the subjects to describe their feelings when touching the various objects. When people touched the metal, they evinced cerebral brain flows indicative of a stress response. When people touched the real leaf, they experienced a calming effect, but didn’t consciously realize it was occurring. The way they described how they felt didn’t change. So, it wasn’t just a subjective perception of relaxation. An actual connection to nature was happening on a physiological, measurable level, showing that our bodies know the difference between manmade and natural. Almost like we’ve evolved some intrinsic interface with the great outdoors, eh?

So, today, I want you to start addressing the nature deficit in your lives. We all have one. Consider this a call to arms, and use this opportunity to make a statement of intent, a declaration of your plans to address the issue and turn your deficit into a surplus.

Remember that nature isn’t just “green.”  You don’t have to plumb the depths of the deep forest, necessarily. Nature is also blue – rivers, lakes, oceans, creeks. In fact, “urban blue” is an emerging focus for researchers interested in the effects of nature exposure and human health. Nature is also brown – deserts, prairies, beaches. Nature can be wildly colorful, too – jungles, meadows full of wildflowers. Nature is darkness, as well. Some of my strongest memories come from simply looking up on a clear black night to watch the universe unfold itself before me. What’s important here is getting a respite from civilization, from steel and concrete and car horns and WiFi and emails. 

Explore less mainstream areas. A perfect example of this is Yosemite National Park in Northern California. Usually when I go, I make it a point to avoid Yosemite Valley. Sure, the valley is where all the big attractions are, like Half Dome, El Capitan, and the Mist Trail, but it’s also where all the tourists go. To most people, Yosemite is Yosemite Valley. But me? I like to go along Tioga Pass, which runs above the valley in the high country and has a ton of really cool stuff. Beautiful vistas, Lake Tenaya, Tuolumne Meadows, Lembert Dome, and several really great campgrounds that tend not to fill up, even in high season. The valley is certainly worth checking out, but sitting in a traffic jam is not my idea of “getting away.”

Try to incorporate a bit of nature into your life every single day. This doesn’t require moving out to the sticks. Luckily, we can fool ourselves with approximations or phantoms of the real thing. Do some gardening out back or on your windowsill. Buy some houseplants. Go for a walk in the park. Take a nap in the grass. Listen to some nature sounds as you work or try to sleep.

Spend the better part of a day in the outdoors at least once a week. You might have to drive an hour or two. You might have to settle for a local park, or even your backyard. Whatever you do, just try to fully immerse yourself in some natural setting for at least one day a week. You don’t lose or anything if you can’t make it happen, of course. Just think of this as a goal to shoot for.

Make time for extended nature-inspired trips several times a year. A few times a year, spend two or more days getting dirty, building fires, camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, hunting, snorkeling, climbing, surfing, snowboarding, or just generally roughing it in whatever manner the season, location, and climate allows. For some people, this will be a safari in South Africa. For others, it’ll be a camping trip to the local lake.

Just do it. We usually have the idea that diet and exercise are the ultimate arbiters of health. If you’re talking body composition, yes, I’d agree. But if you take mental and spiritual health into account, I don’t think we can think of nature exposure as extra-curricular or optional. It’s absolutely vital. Don’t skip this stuff. Make the effort, just like you make the effort to avoid grains, refined sugar, and vegetable oils.

Okay, that’s it for my spiel. As you can tell, I care about this issue, and I think you should, too.

Now, let’s hear from you. Where are you going to go? What steps are you going to take to get more nature in your life? Let me and everyone else know in the comment section! Thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Oops, sorry for my bad grammar in my previous comment. I’m new here and I’m so excited to be part of this healthy way of living. :D

    Laura wrote on August 6th, 2013
  2. I am heading outdoors to gather lavender from my garden.

    Sharon wrote on August 6th, 2013
  3. I can appreciate what you are saying. I live in the suburbs of Calgary, and I work in the heart of the downtown core… it is rare that I can get out of the city.

    And I do have the same kind of fantasy (although I would not be in a cabin in the woods)… Some day I want to own an acreage with pigs, goats and chickens and enough land to grow our own veggies.

    As a family, we tried camping 2 years running and all agreed that every single one of us HATED it! The only thing we all loved was cooking over a campfire… the rest – no thanks! But we all love hiking and try to get up into the mountains as often as we can.

    salixisme wrote on August 6th, 2013
  4. Hey all, I’m the one who has it all figured out! :-) I’m a park ranger living in a national park. (not yosemite) My four year old has been hiking and backpacking more than most adults ever do, and he will not grow up spending his weekends playing video games or on the computer. I realize not everyone can be a park ranger, but I feel very blessed to live the life I do and I try to practice gratitude for it every day.

    Sara wrote on August 6th, 2013
    • You go girl! How nice for your little guy! My son got to live in the wild until he was about 4, then we moved closer to town. I miss those days of him playing outside and getting totally dirty, jumping in puddles and exploring the “woods” around our little cabin. He and daddy would go out and lay on the dock and watch the stars, sometimes even see the shooting stars, the water quietly lapping against the dock as the frogs and crikets chattered.

      2Rae wrote on August 6th, 2013
  5. Coincidentally, I just passed on a whole COLLECTION of your posts of this type to my little Paleo/Primal on Facebook group. 8 links I had saved because they really struck home with me.

    So yes, having written a number of natural history books and being Country Living’s staff naturalist for 11 years, I absolutely agree! Thanks for reminding us, as many times as it takes, Mark.

    Kate (Cathy Johnson) wrote on August 6th, 2013
  6. We live with horses, 2 large dogs, chickens and gardens on 3 acres of mature oaks in rural Shasta County CA, it’s a beautiful property with two custom redwood houses on it. Regular primal exercise includes multiple daily walks with dogs off leash, chainsawing and splitting cords of firewood by hand (and constantly shuttling it into house in the winter), loads of tree trimming, hole digging, lawn and garden maintenance etc. Moved here after 14 years in San Francisco in 2001 and telecommuted for 8 years before taking a layoff or early retirement as I call it. Our country property is bigger than a whole city block but the net cost of owning it after renting out the second house was less than the rent on our 500 sq ft apt in SF. Country life is so much cheaper than the city, and cheaper is far less stressful than expensive. Although there is a lot of maintenance it is very peaceful and tranquil unless you’re blasting your surround sound after midnight which is no problem since you have no neighbors in hearing range. There is no need to go off grid, we are on well and septic but looking at getting a solar system in which case we could sell electricity back to PG&E on days we don’t need AC.

    We just got back from RV camping on the NORCAL and OR coast, beautiful and cool. We love the outdoors but hate campgrounds because they jam you all together on top of each other and dogs need to be leashed, we are so far removed from neighbors at home that all the rules and lack of privacy are too much for us, I guess that’s country people’s problems. We boondock as much as possible which is easy in BLM or National Forest lands.
    .
    The best way to get to country life is to find a city job that you can do 100% telecommute, you will prosper in no time with a city income and country expenses, no wardrobe, lunch or commuting expenses. Most jobs in these areas are low wage but some positions that do pay well in rural areas are teaching and health care, nursing in particular.

    We have reached retirement age and our next move is actually outside of the USA. Your best bet for beachfront outdoor living at ridiculously low costs are places like Nicaragua or Thailand which we are researching now, worth looking at if you’re a surfer, diver, kiteboarder etc.

    Bayrider wrote on August 6th, 2013
  7. Love this observation …

    ” Luckily, we can fool ourselves with approximations ….”

    It’s exactly those on which I must often rely, being a New Yorker. Funny that just today I was so moved by the beauty of some window boxes I was walking by, that I stopped, took a pic, and tweeted it. Check my stream!

    I’m so city-bound this summer, because of some work I’m doing. Thank goodness for Central Park. Even though the NYC skyline is fully visible from just about anywhere, it can still seem like the wilderness (if you let it).

    All good, Mark. Thanks. (And yeah, I have the cabin fantasy sometimes too.)

    Susan Alexander wrote on August 6th, 2013
  8. So you’d be jealous of the trip I am doing in a few weeks time? 16 days, including 3 nights free camping in deserts, the rest only marginally more civilised camping in remote and arid locations.

    Sure, we spend big chunks of time in the car to get there, but we also spend every evening camping under the stars and have red dust in everything. You can’t beat that feeling of seeing distant horizons in all directions and no-one else around.

    Lyn wrote on August 6th, 2013
  9. My family just moved into a house further from the urban center and a little bit into the hills. We now have deer that visit on a daily basis, and we’re swamped with lizards. It may not be chicken and cows, but it sure feels a lot like getting back to nature. Just watching the deer for 5 minutes a day is terribly relaxing (even while they’re munching our plants, it’s leading me to consider what plants can live in harmony with them).

    Also, though, as a SoCal girl for life, I gotta represent for the value brown. I find the desert terribly soothing and peaceful. It is a place of small and spare beauty amid huge open spaces. I like to get out to Joshua Tree, Death Valley, or Anza-Borrego at least once a year, it really fills my heart.

    jj wrote on August 6th, 2013
  10. A great post! This has been my mantra for years. I lgrew up with green-soled feet from barefoot summers but now I live in a city with precious few green spaces and I know that I need to touch uncultivated, real earth with my bare feet as often as possible, and it drives me crazy that I can’t.

    In cities, we touch metals, concrete, plastic-coated wood, cotton, more plastics, rock and macadam all the day long. In my experience, and I’m no New-Ager in the least, the bond to the living earth is essential to our well-being.

    Andrew wrote on August 7th, 2013
  11. Your fantasy place reminded me A LOT of what the Finns call the mökki (summer cottage). During the Summer months, which are few and precious here, most everyone with the possibility leaves the cities and suburbs to retreat to their cabins. They almost always feature a wood burning sauna and border a lake. very tranquil and regenerating!

    Monique wrote on August 7th, 2013
  12. I started walking my neighborhood to lose a few pounds this past spring. It worked and I’m down to my healthy, comfortable weight….but I can’t stop walking the neighborhood! I’m lucky to live in a place with lots of trees, large lots, and nice people. I used to use weather as an excuse not get outside until I took a walk in a rain storm, it was wonderful! As long as there’s no lightening, it’s become my favorite time to be outside. A stressful day at work used to lead to a glass of wine, now it leads to a stroll thru the treelined lots of my world. I’m healthier to be sure, but I think more important, I’m content. Thank you Mark for the inspiration and the continued lessons and enlightenment!

    Tyna wrote on August 7th, 2013
  13. Your post reminded me of getting out of this concrete jungle and going back to the nature :(

    Pallavi wrote on August 7th, 2013
  14. Amazing how building partially underground or adding a green roof can lower energy consumption as well as increase exposure to nature. almost like the world is telling us to bring nature back into our lives.

    Jake wrote on August 7th, 2013
  15. DH and I spent two hours in our local Botanic Garden last Sunday. It was so relaxing – a simple walk enjoying gorgeous flowers, plants and trees. So unhurried, no need for a plan… I realize now why it was so pleasant – I ‘ve been starved for nature! I’m going to try to do this more often! Good for the soul!

    Pat wrote on August 7th, 2013
  16. My “job” is teaching people how to forage for food amongst wild plants. At least two days a week I am outside in nature teaching all day. I call it my office, and I often ride a motorycycle to work. Life is good.

    Deane wrote on August 7th, 2013
  17. barefoot in the backyard, wading in the Hudson river soaking up the scenery, and dreaming out the Bavarian forests of Germany. Upstate NY is full of potential but sharing the experience with your friends will make it more exciting. Not easy living alone.

    Victor Vianale wrote on August 7th, 2013
  18. I love the suggestion of touching plants!

    I was a bit sceptic at first (treehugging and all) but you have to try it before you judge it! Walking home from work I actually tried it and experienced some strange sense of relief. Perhaps a pavlov reaction from reading the post, but who cares.

    It also made me think that this fits perfectly in the evolutionary thinking akin to Paleo lifestyle: afterall, before we dwelled in caves we were safe up in trees right? Perhaps the leaves and branches gave us a sense of stress relief so we felt safe enough to sleep.

    david wrote on August 7th, 2013
  19. We actually did leave suburbia behind in exchange for paradise. We now live in the mountains of Costa Rica and we do eat vegetables from our garden and eggs from our hens, etc. And our front and backyard does have a river running through it and 7 trout ponds. For us, it’s heaven on earth and we’ve noticed a huge difference in our level of happiness/contentment, are increased ability to appreciate the little things like the vibrant colours of our flowers or the fireflies or a starry night. It’s really good for our soul (and mental health). We’ve opened a B&B and call it Hush Valley Lodge for those people who aren’t going to aren’t looking to uproot their lives like we did, but would like to have that forest bathing experience… we invite you and your followers to check out our website at http://www.hushvalleylodge.com.

    Anne wrote on August 7th, 2013
    • Very nice place, I read a bit of and will be following your blog, we’re considering a move to Nicaragua as we are interested in coastal properties.

      Bayrider wrote on August 8th, 2013
  20. Mark, I am a long time reader and fan of your blog. I am very drawn to nature but struggle with the reasons. I should probably be less of a critical thinker and just hang out by a river because I feel like it …but I live in my head.

    If nature is so great, why are we disconnecting and creating artificial environments? Here are my thoughts on why people go camping, leaving out the idea of inherit need for nature:
    https://divergentnature.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/camping/

    Lindsey wrote on August 7th, 2013
  21. We went camping last weekend – absolutely the best way for me to energise myself – it poured with rain all night – it was great hearing it on the tent roof. And I’ve bought a new stove which I’m going to surprise my wife with in the morning – by making her morning cup of tea with it in the garden! So excited I know that I won’t sleep tonight – sad I know bu t who cares!

    Colin wrote on August 7th, 2013
  22. I just spent 3 days alone camping at Allegany State Park in NY (outside of cellular phone service). I fished, mountain biked, hiked over 20 miles in forest and small mountains, cooked on a wood fire, and photographed black bear and whitetail deer. Even with the sound of raccoons searching my campsite for leftovers, I slept deeper and longer than I have in recent memory. I didn’t even speak out loud for two days. I missed my family, but the alone time out in nature was outstanding. I came home feeling like a new man. I recommend a solitary camping trip to anyone who can make it happen.

    Craig wrote on August 7th, 2013
  23. I feel so blessed to live on the shores of beautiful Lake Superior! Just being by the lake is so calming. I agree that I feel 110% better if I can just get outside a little every day. Fortunately I can do this as we live in a rural area on 10 gorgeous acres of land. Hiking in the woods, walking my dog down our country road, and gardening are some of my favorite things! Thanks for a great article Mark! It reminds me why we put up with the grueling winters to live here :)

    Sandi in MN wrote on August 7th, 2013
  24. This is one of the best articles and most important topics outside of nutrition and fitness.

    Thanks a lot to you, Mark, and your whole team for providing us with such invaluable information and especially for making it so appealing to read and take up into our daily lives.

    Now, let’s go outside!

    Stefan wrote on August 8th, 2013
  25. Love this. You really laid out in a very organized thoughtful scientific way what has been on my mind for awhile. Thanks for saying it so well.

    Michaux Shaffer wrote on August 8th, 2013
  26. Before reading this post , I was already itching for a fresh breath of air outside of towns. Now, I am desperate. I love beached and jungles. Can u guys share any recent experience of jungle hiking, river cruise or hanging around in majestic beaches? Nice post.

    kazi wrote on August 9th, 2013
  27. We recently moved to Bend, OR which is an outdoor adventure paradise. It took a lot of planning, saving, scheming, and sacrifice but our desire to create a new normal for our three your old daughter and to reclaim a lifestyle we used to lead was more important than any obstacle in our way. We are poorer, happier, and healthier. Our daughter’s first memories will be in the wilderness: of rivers, lakes, mountains, trails, and snowy forests. That means everything to me.

    Cat wrote on August 11th, 2013
  28. So many of you express a desire tinging with regret that most of the good jobs are in the cities, so think about this: Primal people didn’t depend on big companies for their sustenance. Technology has changed that equation for us, too. There are many income sources available wherever you can get high speed internet. You all have computers.

    Check out classes, schools, websites for ways to make a living online. I have read about quite a few different ones. I know of one entire magazine that devotes part of every issue helping readers figure out small business ideas so they can live abroad where life is saner and cheaper – often off the beaten path in South or Central America, SE Asia, or even rural pockets of Italy, Ireland or France.

    Many of the ideas expressed would work as well in small towns and rural areas of this country – as long as you have high speed internet.

    Rebecca Cody wrote on January 12th, 2014
  29. Our nature deficiency is at the heart of many psychological problems. When I worked building hiking trails, which you (Mark) and I talked about, I had no stress/anxiety or depression.

    When I moved to Austin in the middle of the concrete jungle in a busy area of the city, it was if I couldn’t relax.

    Even when I’d spend time out at the park it took me at least 20 or 30 minutes to “settle in” with nature again and be able to relax.

    Evan Brand wrote on August 6th, 2014
  30. I’m dog-sitting for a friend right now and her house is at the bottom of a glorious forest/royal hunting estate in Scotland. Her dogs like a 2 hour hike (5am to 7am) every morning and a wee jaunt in the afternoon. This morning we took a bit longer and went on a 3 hour hike. The sun was shining, and everything was so green and so fresh! I came in from that walk and saw this article and everything just clicked. Let me tell you, when I get back home to my own dog we’ll be taking a lot more hikes because I have NEVER felt as relaxed as I did trying to find my way through the forest and climbing up the side of a steep hill just to get to the top and breathe in clean, crisp Scottish air. I always say I don’t have time when I’m at home, because I have too much work to do. But waking up at 5 means I have the whole day ahead of me, and I intend to start them off with a big walk. There really is nothing like it. Now, to settle down to the laptop and get some work done…it’s a shame my window looks out to the forest…! Thank you for another brilliant article!

    Katy wrote on August 7th, 2014

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