If you can’t wait to go camping or be in the great outdoors, there are good reasons for it beyond the desire to get out of Dodge. Research proves what we have long intuited: being outside is good for us. Physical and psychological health improves with time spent outdoors.
Many of us spend a lot of time indoors, under artificial light. While we know we need to be sensible about sun exposure, sunlight supports good health. Early-morning sun exposure resets our circadian rhythm, improving sleep.
Sunlight is responsible for the production of vitamin D. Vitamin D helps us maintain a healthy immune system, improves neuromuscular function, and reduces inflammation, the risk of some cancers and osteoporosis.
Sunlight seems to improve vision. Various studies have linked the time spent indoors under artificial light with nearsightedness in children.
Sunlight also increases our serotonin levels, which makes us feel calmer and more positive. It’s more difficult to be cranky on a beautiful, sunny day.
Being outdoors inspires movement, lowering the risk of being overweight. It’s not necessary to work up a heart-pumping sweat to glean some health benefits from being outside.
A stroll in a forest or park can help prevent heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and back pain, and it positively improves mood. We exert more energy and experience greater enjoyment when we exercise outdoors, and we are more likely to make exercise a permanent part of our lifestyle.
The natural environment improves psychological health. Being in proximity to nature is linked to increased activity in the parts of the brain responsible for empathy, emotional stability and the capacity for love.
Being outside lowers cortisol levels and reduces stress. The aromas of the natural world and the garden increase relaxation. Pine lowers anxiety. Lily and rose have calming effects. Lavender reduces anxiety and aids in sleep. Freshly-cut grass emits a chemical that induces calm.
A good dose of nature sharpens thinking, improves concentration, memory and creativity. Green spaces refresh our tired brains and restore mental energy.
The benefits to physical and psychological health from being in green spaces are clear and compelling.
An awareness of the spiritual benefits, however, seems to be lacking in the discussion. Yet, there is a significant spiritual component to being in the great outdoors that deserves attention.
The Celts talked about thin places – physical locations where the veil between heaven and earth thinned. Thin places fostered intimacy with God. While I don’t necessarily believe that there are specific geographic locations that have a monopoly on thinness, I’m certain that time spent in the natural world nourishes our soul, makes us more receptive to goodness and beauty, helps us to perceive truth, and opens us to the presence of God.
The great religions of the world have always recognized a connection between the inner, spiritual life and the natural world. The Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under the bodhi tree. Moses encountered God on a mountainside in a burning bush. Jesus went into the desert and retreated to a mountaintop to pray. In Hinduism, mountains provide access to higher forms of meditation, and rivers nourish and purify body, mind and the inner being. In some aboriginal cultures, the vision quest is a rite of passage that requires isolation in a remote place.
Most of us have experienced graced moments of ineffable beauty and wondrous awe when in the presence of nature. While mine often occur in the mountains or near water, the sight of a massive bumblebee hanging upside down on a tiny blossom as it collects nectar in my garden also stirs my soul.
These types of experiences take us out of our self and give rise to new insights into reality, being and the sacred. They help us transcend our own situation, problems, limitations and ego. They remind us that we are intimately connected to creation and to others.
The health benefits of getting back to nature are well documented. The research confirms what we have always known. Being outdoors is good for us and interacting with nature makes us feel better. It may also make us better people.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.