Crunchy. Granola. Woodsman. Lumberjack. Hillbilly. Natch.
There’s no shortage of disparaging terms used for the nature-loving types who spend a bunch of their time outside. It’s easy to look at their flannel shirts, non-GMO oats, and unshaven bodies and think, “Ha, they’re so weird!” But what if I told you that being outside is actually good for the brain and makes you healthier? Well, about that…
Humans were made to be outside. After all, it’s only in the last couple of thousand years--and especially over the last 100--that we’ve stopped spending most of our time in the great outdoors. It used to be necessary for survival. Hunters, farmers, and foragers all spent a large majority of their time outside, because their lives depended on it. While they retired into different forms of abodes over the years, most of their days were spent in nature.
In the 20th century, with the invention of the automobile and pizza delivery, the need to go outside disappeared from our survival needs completely. We left the outside out there to do whatever the outside does. It can be so uncomfortable, and bugs live out there after all. But in retreating to the indoors, we’ve been losing out on some really necessary bodily processes that only happen when you spend a little time among the trees, in the sun, or rolling in the grass.
We know, Emerson, you told us all along, but we didn’t listen!
It turns out that being outside--and specifically in nature--can have major impact in the way your brain operates. Speaking about research that scientists have been conducting, Simon Worrell writes, “What they’re seeing is that if their volunteers are walking through a city or noisy area, their brains are doing different things than if they are walking in a park. The frontal lobe, the part of our brain that’s hyper-engaged in modern life, deactivates a little when you are outside. Alpha waves, which indicate a calm but alert state, grow stronger.”
That means while you walk around outside in nature, your brain switches modes into a more relaxed state. We probably don’t need to tell you that everyday life is stressful, which is why it’s so amazing that scientists have proven that the state of your brain relaxes when you spend a little time moseying around a pond or frollicking among the wildflowers.
“OK, so your brain changes a little bit or whatever, but what does it really do for me,” you might be wondering. Well, I’m glad you asked. Being outside actually has a huge physiological impact as well. For example, your body produces vitamin D through sun exposure, which is a necessary mineral that promotes a strong immune system and helps protect against Alzheimer's disease. Sunlight exposure also has the added benefit of helping regulate your circadian rhythm--the body’s natural internal clock. So if you struggle falling asleep at night, you might just need to pop outside a little more often. Obviously, you want to protect your skin from over exposure, but it turns out that it isn’t just plants that need sunlight to survive.
Aside from all of the great, measurable benefits that being outside provides us, it just seems to make people happier. People who spend more time outside generally rate themselves happier than folks who don’t. Being outside also seems to keep us feeling younger.
It seems like the benefits never end!
Maybe the best thing about the great outdoors is that it doesn’t cost anything to go for a short walk or hike. Most cities have natural areas that are specifically designed to get us out of city mode and reprogrammed into our more natural roots. If you struggle with a weak immune system, poor sleep habits, or you just feel a general malaise, going outside might be one way to get yourself out of your existential funk. Maybe those seemingly backwards outdoor enthusiasts that we like to poke fun at are actually onto something.
But while you’re here, remember, always wear sunscreen.