Why Getting Outside Is So Good For You

by Bess Hochstein

I took a new job in California this year, and one of the best perks is the location of the company’s headquarters. The office sits in an old apple orchard, and every day, from my desk on the second floor, I watch a steady stream of my colleagues strolling along a path through the trees, taking extended walks to the connecting shaded bike trail. These are not brief strolls; my colleagues are frequently gone for nearly an hour, and most of them take two walks a day.

Far from worrying about lost time, members of the HR department not only encourage these walks; they also promenade on a daily basis. My recruiter even pointed out the trail as a benefit of employment.

This company recognizes the value of getting outside, of breaking up office hours and screen time with an immersion in fresh air, natural light, and nature. Our daily walks relieve stress and clear our minds; indeed, I find it particularly helpful to get outside, away from my monitor, when I’m stuck on a particular problem or unable to focus. When I return to my desk, I’m able to move past whatever was blocking my work.

There’s science behind this mind-clearing phenomenon. A study of close to two thousand people, conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and Edge Hill University in England, found that regular nature walks mitigated the negative effects of stress and was associated with significantly less depression. (The study authors recommend walking in nature three times a week to reap these psychological benefits.) Research also points to the positive effects of spending time outdoors as a way to improve concentration and impulse control in children; it’s not a great leap to assume that adults can reap similar benefits from exposure to nature.

Mark Roule, a yoga teacher and outdoor guide at Kripalu, believes this effect is, well, only natural, given our evolutionary path began when we were creatures in the wild. “Being in nature, even a relaxed walk through a meadow, hike in the forest, or paddle on a lake, allows us to come back into relationship with our original blueprint, nourishing our senses and our souls,” he says.

Mark points to the East for an example of treating afflictions such as depression, insomnia, and stress with exposure to nature. “Japan has been well ahead of the curve,” he says, developing and prescribing a “nature therapy” called Shinrin-Yoku, which translates as “forest bathing.” Studies on the effects of forest bathing show measurable reductions in blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, as well as lower pulse rates and improved immune function—results that are still evident up to a month following a single two-hour forest bathing experience. Forest bathing has been proven to reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness.

In their book Your Brain on Nature, authors Eva Selhub and Alan Logan cite research finding that exposure to nature creates positive changes in the nervous system and increased levels of the hormone serum adiponectin; deficiencies in adiponectin are linked with obesity, type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and other disorders.

Erin Casperson, Dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, also leads outdoor programs at Kripalu, and sees the effects of nature through the lens of Ayurveda, which focuses on creating balance. She says the slowness and serenity of nature balance the speed and chaos of modern life. “The artificial world of computers and iPhones, combined with our overscheduled lifestyles, can create disease, most often in the form of insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, and weight imbalances,” she says. “Being physically active in nature soothes the senses, calms the mind, and increases circulation,” as well as cultivating sattva, which she defines as “the state of mind and emotion expressed as harmony, peace, and purity.”

To bring greater awareness to your experience of nature, Erin recommends taking a walk during which you focus on one sense at a time. Perhaps begin by bringing your attention to the sounds of birds, wind, water splashing, and the breath. Then shift your attention and feel the wind against the skin. Soak in the sights of trees, grass, flowers, birds, clouds, and sky. Draw in a deep breath and savor the fragrance of fresh-cut grass and blossoms opening.

Taking your yoga practice into the natural world is a great way to combine the benefits of both. Mark notes that transitioning your practice from indoors to outdoors—whether on land or on water—can also reignite a sense of playfulness that might have gone dormant in adulthood. “Play is a vital part of being human at any age,” he says. “Play relieves stress, unlocks creativity, forms new neural pathways, nurtures connection, and cultivates empathy.”

So, get on the grass or on a paddleboard, and practice Sun Salutations—to the sun. And when cold weather hits, give snowga a try!

Bess Hochstein, a freelance writer based in Sonoma County, California, writes about yoga, travel, the arts, and culture.

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