Anyone outside as they’re reading this? Who’s wishing they were? (I imagine there are many heads nodding.) It’s a natural human instinct, this pining away at the office window, this emotional itch to break out, and finally the luxuriant relief to be in the open again. The fact is, we’re never so much at home as we are in the outdoors. Nature was the context and logic for all of human evolution. Temporary shelters and caves aside, our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors lived their full lives under the big sky. They developed complex skills and even aesthetic preferences adaptive to surviving in the natural world. Increasingly, research illuminates the deep-reaching legacy of our natural roots. Studies support what Primal intuition has known all along: there are rich and measurable benefits to being in nature.
Think about all the times you’ve spent outdoors in your life. Beyond the mere comings and goings of the day, when have you been present in nature largely for its own sake? Some of us are hikers, some hunters. Some love to camp or sit on the beach. A few are tree climbers, a few mountain climbers. Some relish the chance to photograph the perfect sunset or the local wildlife. We’re alternately runners, walkers, kayakers, and playground enthusiasts. Many among us head outdoors for adventure while others prefer to lose themselves in the quiet observation of a river’s flow. We follow different purposes but ultimately feed a common instinct.
We know how we feel in these encounters. We’re calm, exhilarated, fortified, restored, still. The effects are more than emotional, however, and the significance more than personal. Modern medicine is beginning to catch on to the use of nature in healing and maintaining health. It’s part of growing attention to therapeutic lifestyle practices, basic activities that demonstrate health related benefits. In fact, there’s a movement taking root across the globe – from Norway to Japan, from New Mexico to North Carolina – to prescribe nature. Though the details and incentive vary considerably, physicians are partnering with national, state, or local park organizations to encourage their patients to use the opportunity for exercise and immersion in nature to better their health.
It’s with good reason. On the physical side, time in nature is associated with a welcome decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and sympathetic nerve activity. There’s the dramatic increase of anti-cancer protein expression and natural killer cells to fight off infection and cancer growth. To boot, exercising outdoors in green – or better yet green and “blue” (body of water) – space enhances the gains of each workout. Subjects in studies report greater revitalization, increased energy, and more positive engagement, along with less depression, anger, confusion, and tension when they exercised outdoors in comparison with indoor workouts.
Then there are the other mental benefits, including the overall reduction in stress as well as cognitive advantages such as the replenishing of voluntary attention that enhance connectivity in the brain and allows us to focus efficiently. And don’t forget the opportunity to experience deep joy and transcendental connectedness. It’s a shame we can’t all be outside right now.
Moreover, it appears from the totality of research that time in nature most powerfully nurtures us when we’re most “at risk” – of disease, depression, or desperation. Studies have illuminated measurable physiological progress (e.g. fewer surgical related complications, decreased use of pain medication, and shorter hospital stays) and greater emotional well-being when patients frequent hospital gardens like the amazing Prouty Garden of Children’s Hospital in Boston (which may be eliminated to make space for other clinical facilities) or simply have a “green” view in their rooms (PDF). Time in open natural space drastically reduces the symptoms of ADHD and behavioral disorders in children. Wilderness therapy has been instrumental in abuse and addiction recovery models (PDF). Immersion in nature can offer an emotional release for many, while the challenge of outdoor adventures can act as a turning point in regaining trust and self-esteem.
Nature therapies, especially surf therapy, are now supported by a number of military related nonprofits to help many returning soldiers transition to civilian life and to cope with trauma and disability resulting from their combat experiences. As the foundation director of one ocean therapy organization explains, “Surfing [can be] a catalyst, where after injury, the Marine may feel damaged or unable to complete his mission. After surfing and gaining that renewed confidence, some of the participants show a renewed vision towards the future and begin to set goals and engage with their families again.”
The truth is, many of us can benefit from the open, elemental space nature offers to re-envision ourselves, our lives, and our relationships. Outside the roles and routines of daily life, we can encounter what’s most essential in our selves and others. We can let go of everything but a momentary, wild awareness. In doing so, we can release the pain or heaviness we’ve been carrying. We can unblock the channels for feeling and relating. Unbound by physical and emotional distraction, we can be more present for our children, partners, and other loved ones (PDF).
There’s both physical and emotional power in returning to what is most essential in ourselves. In nature, we find congruence – the biological and psychic synchronicity that directed our evolution. We’re nurtured within this ancient set point, the origin for a potent path to healing and vitality.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. Let me know your thoughts about how nature has influenced your well-being. Have a great end to the week, and get outside!