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Wooden hut in Canada
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Why spending time outdoors is so damn good for you

There are few experiences pleasanter than getting totally, utterly lost in nature. Here a psychotherapist explains exactly why

Written by
Ruth Allen

When we go to stay somewhere wild, it is not just the enchanting, curious and quirky dwellings that we go for. We go because these are beautiful spaces nested within beautiful places, man-made lodgings in nature-made havens. We go because when we stay somewhere wild, we get up close and personal with both the absolute best of thoughtful human design – which helps us disconnect, unwind and relax – and with nature’s intrinsic restorative and healing benefits.

Luckily for us – or, perhaps more accurately, as a function of our innate evolutionary connection to the rest of nature – the benefit of time spent in and around the great outdoors can be felt with little effort or exertion on our part.

You might choose to sit outside quietly, go for an aimless wander, or close your eyes and listen to the sounds of wildlife and weather. Some of my most memorable and uplifting times outside have been when I have done nothing more than observe the beauty around me, felt my own glorious smallness, and enjoyed simply being. While there will be additional gains taken from a concerted effort to be outside doing immersive activities, the research is clear that we can experience the physical and mental health benefits of natural places even by viewing them through a well-placed window.

Although many of us intuitively know the power of time spent outside, the empirical study of nature’s healing potential is still relatively new. But one well-documented area of analysis is the impact of forest bathing on our health. Research shows that escaping the city to immerse yourself among the trees can reduce your blood pressure and stress levels, improve your metabolic health, lower your blood sugar levels, and improve your pain response.

Some of my most uplifting times outside have been when I have done nothing more than feel my own glorious smallness

We have also discovered that trees produce natural oils called phytoncides, which they use to communicate with each other. These infuse the already oxygen-rich forest air that we breathe, and have been shown to boost the immune system and even increase the production of anti-cancer proteins. On a psychological level, the oils can also lower the symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve mood, and increase concentration, memory and energy levels.

When we go outside, not only do our own microbiomes generally benefit from wider exposure to a more diverse ecology of bacteria, but our bodies get busy producing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, pain-relieving endorphins, and the hormones serotonin and oxytocin in response to the things we see and do that make us feel good.

But it is not just the happy chemicals that nature helps us regulate; taking time outside can also lower the production of the stress hormone cortisol (which many of us are bathing in as a function of our busy, modern lives), reducing our overall stress levels and restoring calm and ‘order’ to our nervous system.

And it is not just forests. There is now abundant data revealing similar health benefits of time spent in or near water. Whether it is a walk on a coastal path, swimming in the sea, watching a river flow, or sitting by a peaceful lake, time spent in ‘blue spaces’ shares many of the same outcomes as ‘green spaces’, with some notable additions of its own, such as the increased intake of fresh (preferably salty) air, which has been shown – among other things – to improve overall lung function.

Forest in Canada
Photograph: Shutterstock

No special effort is required to feel the benefits of time spent in blue or green spaces, other than the intention to make room for it. A couple of hours a week is often enough for long-term improvements, but even 15 minutes will set you on your way.

It is through our senses of sight, touch, smell, taste and sound that we encounter the rest of the natural world, via messages sent to our brain about what we enjoy, what relaxes us, what invigorates us and what stimulates a sense of wonder. These moments matter because beautiful things improve our mood, and when we stimulate feelings of awe, internal inflammation has been shown to reduce the symptoms of chronic inflammatory diseases, and even of depression. 

In fact, it is because the natural world appears to be so brilliant at up- and down-regulating our nervous system that we find our time outside to be both restorative and energising. Whether you arrive outdoors in need of peace and quiet or mobilisation and stimulation, going outside has something for everybody. Relaxing activities such as sitting quietly and listening to the ambient sounds of birdsong or building a fire and softly gazing at the flames with friends are excellent ways of activating your body’s parasympathetic nervous system — sending the message that it is time to destress and allow feelings of safety and connection to wash over you.

To be without nature is to be deprived of its life-giving and life-affirming properties

Alternatively, activities that feel exciting, new and exploratory – or that involve putting your body under a healthy level of exertion – not only benefit the cardiovascular system, but also energise the sympathetic nervous system out of lethargy and into readiness, sending the message ‘let’s go!’, which itself can lift mood, motivation and overall feelings of wellbeing.

We have known for a long time that immersing ourselves in the softer light and soundscape of natural places has the potential to restore our attention and concentration when we have become mentally fatigued and overwhelmed in our hyper-saturated, noisy working lives. But now we also know that repeating shapes and patterns in nature provide a visual fluency that is soothing to our brains. We know about the pain-killing properties of a green view and that bilateral movements such as walking or running help us to process our emotions and solve problems.

A diverse and fascinating database of scientific evidence that substantiates the health benefits of nature is growing all the time and revealing the astounding depth and complexity of our relationship with the natural world. When I work outside with people in therapy, I see the endless ways that being in a natural environment supports the work we do together, whether it’s observing the bodily relaxation that happens as soon as we start walking through the woods together, seeing how we enjoy the sights and sounds moment by moment, or noticing the long-term psychological benefits in a person over time as they learn to connect meaningfully with the world around them.

This is my encouragement for you too. Go outside and meet the world with all of your senses in a way that works for you, because the rationale for a closer relationship is clear: to be without nature is to be deprived of its life-giving and life-affirming properties.

Ruth Allen is a psychotherapist and writer based in the Peak District, England. This essay appears in ‘Stay Wild’, a new book from Canopy & Stars which is released on April 29.

And where should you stay exactly?

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