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Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.
Karen Marley | 07.12.2019

In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.

—John Muir

If you’re reading these words on Outdoor Project, you probably don’t need to be sold on the idea that spending time outside is essential for good health. This community lives with a relentless, intrinsic pull to the trails, water, rocks, and snow.

But those who don’t orbit the active, outdoor-loving lifestyle have other interpretations. The outdoors can be itchy. It bites. It’s uncomfortable, potentially dangerous, and did I mention dirty? Thanks, but no thanks.

This attitude is unfortunate. Without regular doses of nature, your health and well-being suffer. This assertion may sound a little too convenient coming from a source that advocates outdoor adventures, but the link between nature and health is not some fuzzy New Age claim by granola-wielding hipsters. It’s science and data.

 


Studies are in: Time in nature improves overall health and wellbeing. Vanessa Ball.

Our Reality Bites

American society is a showcase of ingenuity. We exist in climate-controlled environments, rely on powered vehicles for transportation, extend daylight hours with artificial light, fuel ourselves with an industrial food system, and have reconfigured our lifestyles to minimize physical labor.

It’s a lifestyle of ease and comfort that protects us from the volatile whims and demands of primitive and natural environments. And yet, it’s a lifestyle that’s dragging down our collective health.

The U.S. is an outlier in how much it spends on health, per person. The Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker reveals that in 2017, U.S. health spending was $10,224 per person, which was 28% higher than the next highest per capita spender, Switzerland.

You’d think a cushy lifestyle coupled with massive healthcare expenditures would result in a society replete with health. Reality is the exact opposite. We’re being slowly crushed by preventable lifestyle diseases.

Spend a little time researching chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke, and you’ll quickly confirm that these are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), six in 10 adults have a chronic disease, and four in 10 have two or more. Don’t point to a longer life span as a measurement of better health, because we fail there, too. The Health System Tracker shows that, as of 2016, the U.S. has the lowest life expectancy among its high-income peers.

Clearly, we are missing something.

 


A family outing in nature does more than encourage family unity. Kristi Parsons.

The Human Animal

For some reason, accusations of being an animal are considered an insult. We have forgotten who we are. Beneath the veneer of our technologically advanced society we are card-carrying members of the animal world. Kingdom Animalia, to be exact. Our genus, Homo, is a member of the taxonomic family known as the great apes, or Hominidae. We share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos, 90% percent with cats, and about 60% with chickens.

For two millennia, humans have evolved to live symbiotically in nature. Like it or not, our relationship with natural systems is our biological heritage. What some of us may feel intuitively is just now becoming better understood: Exposure to natural systems has a profound, positive effect on our physical and mental health.

Inflamed & Stressed Out

Inflammation is your body’s biological response to harmful stimuli. Chronic inflammation is associated with many ailments including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, auto-immune diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, skin problems, arthritis, depression, emotional stress, and more.

Reducing inflammation reduces your risk of getting any number of chronic diseases. Numerous studies have linked exposure to nature with a reduction in inflammation and other beneficial physiological responses. A walk in the woods can reduce your blood glucose levels and improve your state of relaxation, which improves sleep, boosts immunity, and helps neutralize the hostile effects of stress on the body.

More than 50% of people live in urban areas. Urbanization is linked to increased levels of mental illness, but studies show that a 90-minute walk in a natural environment can reduce negative thoughts and interacting with natural spaces can lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol.

All these studies point to a single takeaway: Accessing natural areas regularly is critical for physical and mental health.

The Outdoor Mindset

It sounds obvious, but the only way to reap the benefits of nature and being outdoors is to practice being outdoors. Having a purpose to your activities helps.

It’s easy to find your purpose when you get to meander down gorgeous trails, swim in luscious lagoons, or capture the view from a mountain peak. The challenge is finding your purpose when the activity is less than sexy, like taking a neighborhood walk … in the rain.

The downtime between your outdoor excursions has a distinct purpose. It’s the time to stay physically and mentally fit so you’re prepared for more glamorous (and I’ll just go ahead and say it—Instagram-worthy) experiences. It’s a matter of looking at activities through a different lens. You go to the gym, not to lose weight, but to maintain fitness levels for your activities. You run outside instead of hitting the treadmill while watching television. You walk to the store (or post office, or bank, or whatever) instead of driving. Exposure to the outside makes you better at being outside.

As a member of the unofficial (and completely awesome) outdoor-loving community, this mindset probably comes naturally. As it should. After all, it’s in our nature. As for nature itself, now you have proof to love it, protect it, and advocate for it even more.

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