By Dr. Frank Lipman
Not that long ago, mankind lived and worked mostly outdoors. Fast-forward a few generations, and now most of our time is spent almost exclusively indoors. By day, we’re sealed into windowless office cubes and by night, we’re holed up at home in a darkened room watching Netflix. We’re literally walled off from the natural world, not to mention other people. In fact, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that adults spend an average of just 5 percent of their day outside—so is it any wonder why you may often feel blah, uninspired or mildly depressed?
My advice: Go wild—and by that I mean reconnect with the natural world and disconnect from the couch and the screen. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you are craving doses of the outdoors, so indulge as often as you can. When you do, your body will benefit in ways no pill or potion can touch. Here’s where to start, and why you should:
TIME IN NATURE SUPPORTS IMMUNITY.
If you want to boost immunity in an easy, relaxing way, hang out in green spaces, daily if possible and definitely every week. Doing so is as vitally important as eating your greens. Spending time in verdant surroundings—for example, by a lake, in a forest or meadow or on a hiking trail—gives you back something of the original human condition: a calm body with an optimized immune system and a brain that is restfully aware of, and alert to, the surroundings but unencumbered by constant, swirling thoughts. Nature helps you achieve this state by gently waking and stimulating all the senses. Nature also provides the welcome effect of rejuvenating the parts of you that get dulled and squelched by life’s daily demands. On a purely physical level, the benefits may be even more profound—in fact, one leading researcher in the field of nature therapy believes that the aromatic chemicals released by pine trees are responsible for turning on the powerful anticancer “killer cells” of your immune system. One more excellent reason to get out there.
FOREST-BATHING PROMOTES WELLNESS.
In many cultures, regular and frequent connection with the natural world is a standard wellness practice. For example, many Japanese practice “shinrin-yoku” or “forest-bathing,” which involves quietly immersing yourself (clothes on, of course) in the sensory atmosphere created by trees, to restore well-being and soothe a harried mind. Part physical activity, part natural therapy, it’s a powerful and low-cost antidote for the stresses of modern life that anyone can access at any time, no appointment necessary.
EMBRACING THE OUTDOORS CALMS YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM AND YOUR MIND.
Simply being present in nature helps trigger a cascade of beneficial effects. The parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for calming us, switches on, cortisol drops, and the brain’s prefrontal cortex—your hard-driving command center—pumps the brakes, as you drift into a state of soft-focus awareness. You’re better able to let go of negative thought cycles, rejuvenate your mental energy, and even access a wellspring of creativity and concentration.
CONNECTING WITH THE NATURAL WORLD MAKES YOU NICER.
It’s been observed that empathy and altruism also increase after gazing at the natural world, possibly even more so if you get a little dirt between your toes. A recent study showed that a strain of soil bacteria increased serotonin—a powerful mood-boosting chemical—in mice, suggesting that touching soil itself might help elevate mood. Today, “ecotherapy” practitioners in the U.S. are harnessing this potential, using exposure to nature as a low-cost, side-effect-free alternative therapy for physical and mental ills that can also lead to greater social connectivity, as kindred spirits cross paths in a park or on a trail.
MOVEMENT OUT-OF-DOORS CAN BOOST YOUR ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE.
Maybe you prefer a more action-packed approach: hiking, biking or skiing through nature, rather than simply contemplating it? Exercising in green and wild spaces has been shown to trump indoor workouts in terms of lower perceived effort, greater motivation and higher pleasure levels. (Common sense tells us this, but now researchers are validating it.) Just remember to be present in the environment as you move, keeping distractions to a minimum and letting your senses appreciate every sight, sound and smell. Taking the kids along on these expeditions will ensure you stay present as you get them on a healthy path—and get everyone off their phones (at least for a little while).
LET MOTHER NATURE REFRESH YOUR MENTAL PERFORMANCE.
For the fullest benefits, let iconic nature writer Edward Abbey be your inspiration. He said, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” Venturing beyond everyday boundaries and entering unexplored wilderness is the deepest form of nature refreshment—one study showed a 50 percent increase in mental performance after three days of backpacking. Not that you can measure it in percentages, but wilderness also seems to deliver on a more transcendental level. When you feel disenchanted, nature can re-enchant you, and remind you that you are as much a part of the cosmos as the sun, moon and stars.
WHAT’S THE RIGHT DOSE OF NATURE-AS-MEDICINE?
Finnish researchers developing antidepression therapies prescribe several short immersions per week, including a longer 40-minute walk, which cumulatively show significant mood-lifting benefits. Meanwhile, trained forest-therapy guides in the U.S. recommend seven contemplative walks in seven weeks as a nature-therapy starter kit. But rejuvenation can also be as simple as a lunch break on a bench in a botanical garden or lounging in a park looking at clouds—two quick and easy options for time-pressed urbanites. How else can you get your dose? Here are a few easy ways to get out there—and take your wonderful medicine:
- Hit the trail… with community groups like Hike It Baby (which organizes free group hikes for parents and caregivers with children), Sierra Club, Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, and the Natural Leaders Network. Signing on with a group that knows the territory is great for newbies and makes it easy to connect with others as you move through nature together.
- Take a “forest bath” with others… and sign up for shinrin-yoku sessions with one of the US-based guides listed at natureandforesttherapy.org to immerse yourself in the natural world.
- Find good reasons to get out there… by volunteering with an urban food garden; joining a bird-watching club; getting involved with an environmental activism group; taking part in a naturalist-led hike or herb walk in your area. Whatever you do, commit to doing more of it outside.
- Sleep in the great outdoors… and go camping in beautiful and unique locations. Or just pitch a tent in the backyard or try camping in comfort with tentrr.com, which offers canvas tents on platforms. Feeling glamorous? Then try a night or two of glamping at an upscale resort and sleep in the wild—with all the amenities, of course.
Frank Lipman MD is a Functional Medicine Physician and New York Times bestselling author; drfranklipman.com