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Get Outside! It's Good for You!
A gentle breeze blows across your face and rustles the leaves of the trees covering a hillside that stretches up and away from you. Sunlight and shadows play tag on the tree trunks and forest floor. Birds chirp and crickets sing while chipmunks scurry through dead leaves and over fallen logs. Fresh air, tinged with the smell of soil and wood and leaves, fills your lungs as you walk the springy softness of a path meandering through the woods. You stop at a rock outcropping to survey the scene below you: a valley of farmland, framed by ridge after ridge of mountains fading into the horizon.
Did you know that a scene like the one I’ve just described can measurably improve your health? Researchers in the relatively new field of environmental psychology study nature’s impact on mental, social, and even physical well-being.
Much of our time today is spent using what researchers term “directed attention,” or focused mental effort and concentration. Excessive concentration leads to fatigue, but nature’s inherent fascination helps people recover from the impulsivity, distractibility, and irritability that accompany “directed attention fatigue.” Terry Hartig, an associate professor of applied psychology at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at Uppsala University in Gävle, Sweden, calls this directed attention fatigue “normal psychological wear and tear.” He explores how nature helps people recuperate from it. In one study, for 40 minutes, he gave participants tasks that required concentration. He then sent some to walk in a local nature preserve, others to walk in an urban area, and still others to sit quietly reading magazines and listening to music. After the break, the nature walkers performed better on a proofreading task than the urban walkers or magazine readers. The nature walkers also reported more positive emotions and less anger.
Frances Kuo, co-director of the Human Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, has focused her research efforts on children. She found that even, as she described them, “isolated pockets of green containing just the bare bones of grass and a tree,” have a marked impact on children. Children living in buildings near these green spots have a greater attention span and are better at delaying gratification and inhibiting impulses than other children who live in buildings surrounded by barren concrete. Parents of children with ADHD in Kuo’s studies report that their children are less hyperactive after spending time in green surroundings than when they played indoors or in outdoor areas that weren’t green.
As fall turns into winter, don’t despair if you live in an area that gets cold; perhaps most interesting of all, people don’t have to actually go out in nature to experience its benefits. According to the research of Rachel Kaplan, workers who simply have a view out their office windows enjoy their jobs more, are healthier, and report more overall satisfaction with their lives. In another study, Hartig showed people photographs of either a forested area or downtown Stockholm.
The forest slides improved people’s moods. “These are not spectacular natural environments, or horribly oppressive urban environments,” says Hartig. “We try to represent typical local conditions, using what’s available to people in the way of places they can enter if they’re feeling stressed and want some relief.” And it’s not just mental health that is improved with exposure to nature. According to Roger Ulrich of the University of Delaware, hospital patients whose rooms looked out at trees and bushes recovered an average of eight percent faster, needed fewer painkillers, and had fewer complications than patients who looked out at a brick wall. In a study at a Swedish hospital, Ulrich also found that heart surgery patients’ anxiety was reduced just by looking at pictures depicting trees and water.
These studies make perfect sense when you consider the Creation story. After all, God didn’t place Adam and Eve in a sea of cubicles! “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed” (Genesis 2:8). It comes as no surprise to us then that we should benefit—physically, mentally, socially, spiritually—from experiencing the natural environment God created us to enjoy.
There’s nothing quite like experiencing the fresh air and sunshine of the Great Outdoors. According to an old Norwegian adage, “There’s no bad weather, only bad gear.” So bundle up this fall and winter and get out there!
- Rake leaves (and then jump in the big piles!) or shovel snow.
- Hang a birdfeeder outside your window and watch what comes to feed.
- Go puddle stomping during a fall rainstorm.
- Plant some winter vegetables (spinach, squash, broccoli) or flowers (pansies do well in a moderately cold climate); if your yard space is limited, use pots on your deck or front porch.
- Wrap up in a big blanket and sit on your porch or deck to watch the sunrise, sunset, or just the afternoon or evening sky.
- Collect pinecones for fall and winter decorations.
- Go sledding or build a snowman or snow fort.
- Take a walk and look for animal tracks.
- Hunt for bird nests that you can watch next summer.
- Shovel a maze into the snow in your yard.
- Build a snow fort and pretend you’re an Eskimo or polar explorer.
- Have a winter picnic. Take along warm food in an insulated bag or soup in a thermos. Take a warm blanket to sit on or wrap up in.
- Climb a tree.
- Camp in your backyard with all the spare blankets and sleeping bags you can find.
- Make a scavenger hunt in your own neighborhood or try geocaching—a modern take on the age-old treasure hunt.
- Sit in one place and see how many pictures you can take from within a single square foot.