If you spent your last weekend of summer camping or hiking or even relaxing on the beach, it may have looked like your fellow Americans were coming out in droves to spend time in the “Great Outdoors.” Unfortunately, while three-day weekends tend to bring out the outdoor-lover in all of us, studies show that both kids and adults are spending considerably less time outdoors than is healthy – far less than they were a decade ago.
A recent survey conducted by The Nature Conservancy indicated that only 10 percent of teenagers in the United States spend time outdoors every day. Statistics coming from the Environmental Protection Agency suggest adults and children spend 90 percent of their life indoors.
So, why should we be concerned about this? Being indoors is comfortable and entertaining (hello, Netflix!), but spending time in nature is just as important. There is a plethora of research that shows spending time in nature is incredibly beneficial to the health and well-being of people. Think about the last time you were outdoors, did you feel stressed, overwhelmed with deadlines or tied to your ringing cell phone? Chances are no.
In fact, we would wager that spending that time surrounded by trees, flowers, and other living creatures left you not only feeling refreshed and calm – but you started to feel a little more appreciative of the natural world. Don’t believe us? Just check out these 4 reasons we all need to get outside:
1. Natural Environments Improve Mental Health
Multiple studies suggest that time spent in nature can help rid your mind and body of the stress and tension that we so often consider an inherent aspect of the daily grind. Researchers have observed that subjects who spend time in the forest demonstrate lower heart rates and cortisol (stress hormone) levels compared with subjects who spend the same amount of time in the city.
Psychologists have studied the effects of nature on mental and emotional health, especially among children, since the early 1980s, and environmental psychologists have determined that the presence of nature strengthens a child’s resilience in dealing with stress and adversity – particularly among children who grow up in high-stress environments.
Whether you’re dealing with everyday stresses or anxieties, the research is pretty clear that spending time in nature can greatly improve mental health. And the best part? No unwanted side effects.
2. Time Outdoors Helps You Think Clearly
Can the natural world really improve our thinking? Research strongly suggests that it can, in a myriad of ways. The ability to solve problems and excel in academics and the creative arts are all tied to connection with nature. The phenomenon is at the forefront of attention restoration therapy (ART), the notion that natural environments demand less from us than busy urban environments, allowing us to concentrate our attention where we please and recover from mental exhaustion.
According to the National Wildlife Foundation, citing multiple studies and sources, in schools with environmental education programs, students perform higher on math, reading, writing and listening tests. Similarly, time spent in nature is linked to a longer, more focused attention span. This is part of the reason why some professionals believe that having children spend time in a natural environment can be effective in treating ADHD symptoms in children.
Creative problem-solving also improves with time spend outdoors. One study showed that participants who spent four days immersed in nature performed 50 percent better on a creative problem-solving test than they did previous to the multi-day hike. When you’re out of your comfort zone and faced with a new set of terrain and possibilities on a hiking trail, your brain operates in a different way than it would if you were sitting at your desk. Providing your brain with new sights and experiences can help you become more creative in your problem solving which can benefit many different aspects of life. This particular study also attributed time away from cell phones to participant’s success.
To give yourself a mental boost, put down your smartphone for a few hours and spend that time fully absorbed by natural surroundings.
3. Physical Health and the Outdoors
In the U.S., one-third of adults are obese. Obesity can be extremely detrimental to overall physical health and has a strong link to high blood pressure and heart disease. While there are many factors that contribute to our obesity epidemic, getting outdoors in nature and being physically active can help.
Studies strongly suggest that kids who spend more time outdoors are more physically active. Seeing as The Nature Conservancy found that children who were classified as obese were far less likely to participate in outdoor activities or even pursue them in the future, there is a strong correlation between getting kids outdoors and helping them to foster a healthy physical activity regime. Whether it’s running around in a backyard or going on a hike through the woods, nature-time forces kids to get off the couch and peel themselves away from the iPad – something that is becoming increasingly more difficult to do in today’s world.
But spending time in nature has other physical health benefits beyond weight maintenance and fitness. Natural sunshine is a great source of Vitamin D which helps improve bone health and plays a role in preventing heart disease and diabetes. It’s also been suggested that spending time outdoors decreases inflammation, strengthens your immune system and reduces the risk of developing nearsightedness.
4. Conserving the Natural World
It’s apparent now that nature can do a lot for your health. But how can humans have a positive impact on the natural world just by spending time in it?
Studies show that time spent in nature makes humans feel more connected to each other and the world at large. Stronger feelings of belonging give both adults and children more reason to protect the world in which they live.
But the science goes even further. Dr. Nancy Wells, an environmental psychologist at Cornell University, has produced multiple studies on the relationship between time spent in nature and the will to conserve it. Her 2006 study published in Children, Youth and Environments even suggests that childhood participation with nature may set individuals on a trajectory toward adult environmentalism.
The effects are all the more profound if one’s time in nature involves an educational experience or volunteer effort. For instance, someone who volunteers to clean up a river and, in the process, learns about the importance of clean watersheds, is more likely to put other efforts toward reducing water pollution through individual actions or activism!
When was the last time you had a meaningful experience in nature, Green Monsters? What did you learn from it?
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lead image: Paxson Woelber, Expedition Arguk
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