If you're anything like us, chances are you spend way more time inside — tapping away at a computer and hunched over your phone — than you do basking in the greenery. But with Earth Day upon us and temperatures warming up as summer nears, consider becoming a little more one with nature. After all, it does have some pretty neat health benefits.
Why Going Outside Is Good for Your Mind, Body and Soul
"Being outdoors is generally associated with activity, and being physically active keeps joints loose and helps with chronic pain and stiffness," says Jay Lee, M.D., a physician with Kaiser Permanente in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Plus, when you exercise outside (whether you go for a hike, run or opt to do something else), you have to disconnect from your phone — and that allows you to focus on yourself and what you're doing, says Francis Neric, senior director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine.
You're also less likely to pick up a virus in the summer, since you're not breathing in the same recycled air as everyone else quite as much. "Cold and flu happen in the winter because people are huddled indoors, where you're more likely to be exposed to those viruses," says Lee.
Aside from boosting your activity level, hanging out at a park, garden or amongst many trees is great for your mental wellbeing, too. "Nature can be beneficial for mental health," says Irina Wen, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Steven A. Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone Medical Center. "It reduces cognitive fatigue and stress and can be helpful with depression and anxiety."
The Benefits of 'Bathing' in the Woods
Research has shown that 'forest bathing,' the practice of spending time in a forested area in an effort to reap wellness rewards, is pretty darn good for you. That may explain why this Japanese trend is catching on stateside.
A 2010 study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, for example, found that participants who walked in a forest had lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol (a.k.a. the stress hormone) afterwards than those who strolled through a city environment.
Hope Parks, the wellness manager at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, runs the resort's three-year-old Deep Healing Woods program. It was inspired by traditional forest bathing, or Shirin-Yoku. Visitors can sign up for a hike, run or yoga or meditation session (all activities are done solo and last 90 minutes).
"We focus on allowing nature to awaken the senses," she says. When you take a walk or hike through the woods there — sans any technological distractions, since service is spotty — you're likely to take in even the smallest of details around you, says Parks. "And if you close your eyes, you can hear creeks more deeply," she adds.
The Blackberry Farm property sits on 4,200 acres of land in the Great Smoky Mountains, making it the perfect location to find some Zen. "90 minutes later, I notice people's shoulders have lowered away from their ears," says Parks. "Relaxation has happened."
Julia Goren, education director for the Adirondack Mountain Club, tried her hand at forest bathing back in December with colleagues. "It was tremendously peaceful, calming and centering," she says. "We took a silent walk, listening to the sounds of the wind through the fir needles, the popping of trees and the occasional croaking of a raven."
Goren says that the focus on quietness helped her feel part of the larger natural community — and she felt more relaxed and had an easier time focusing once the walk was over.
How to Prep for Your Own Nature Adventure
You don't need access to a forest to get in on the fun — any green space will do. Just make sure to take a few precautions before venturing out on your own.
1. Be aware of your surroundings. Going it alone? Staying safe is key. "Know your environment," says Neric, "and let someone know where you're going."
2. Protect your skin. "You want to get the exposure for the vitamin D, but that comes with an increased risk of skin cancer, so apply sunscreen to exposed areas and wear a hat," says Lee. You may also want to spritz on bug spray and wear long sleeves depending on your location, says Neric.
3. Wear comfy kicks. While physical activity has many health benefits, one of the negatives is that it can increase musculoskeletal pain if you don't use the right gear, says Lee. "If you're walking or running, make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes," he says.
4. Stay hydrated. Don't leave home with out the water bottle! Lee says it's often hard to gauge if you're guzzling enough H2O, so check your pee. "Your urine should come out clear," he says. "If it's dark yellow, you need to drink more water."