Getting Wild for Your Health
The warmth of sunshine on your face. The scent of fresh pine needles as you enter a quiet, serene forest. The feeling of soft earth underneath your bare feet and narrow blades of grass between your toes. You’ve experienced the joyful sensations of being in nature—but have you ever stopped to think about how venturing out into the wild benefits your physical and mental health?
The benefits of nature aren’t new information. Our ancestors worked, hunted, played, meditated, prayed, and spent significant portions of their lives outside in the wild world around them. In today’s industrialized, technology-saturated world, we have to take time to get wild. In fact, the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” exists so that we can spend mindful time reconnecting with nature.
Now, scientists and researchers have discovered what we’ve known for centuries on a visceral level: nature is good for us. Here’s an overview of the health benefits of nature, as well as suggestions for incorporating more outdoor time into your life.
What are the physical health benefits of nature?
From increased vitamin levels to reduced cancer risk, getting out in the wild has several key benefits to your physical health.
Reduced exposure to toxins: You might be surprised to know this, but we’re exposed to 25 to 62 percent more toxins indoors than outdoors (yes, even with that fancy air purifier you just bought and all the indoor plants you own). By getting outside regularly, we reduce our exposure to toxins in favor of fresh air.
Increased vitamin D: Sunlight exposure increases the body’s production of Vitamin D. This hormone can improve mood, increase blood flow, reduce blood pressure, and more.
Increased serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine levels: Outdoor light exposure, exercise, and even soil exposure can increase serotonin levels naturally (serotonin, remember, is the mood-stabilizing hormone that impacts our feelings of well-being and happiness). Sunlight can also increase oxytocin and dopamine levels and increase feelings of happiness.
Improved weight loss: Being outdoors typically involves being active in some way, like going for a hike or playing a sport. Extra activity will lead to increased calorie burn and improved weight loss. At the same time, being outdoors prevents you from sitting in front of the television all day, which reduces any mindless snacking.
Potentially reduced cancer risk: Researchers have found that forest bathing can increase natural killer cell activity and potentially provide an anti-cancer benefit, thanks to inhaling cedar mists.
Restored circadian rhythm: Our circadian rhythm (that is, our internal clock) is tied to the natural cycles of sunlight. However, electrical light—especially blue light—disrupts that cycle. Natural light exposure can shift melatonin production to its proper time.
What are the mental health benefits of nature?
Next time you’re feeling mentally stuck or a little down, try taking a quick walk outside. Here’s how nature benefits your mental health.
Improved stress management: One of the biggest impacts nature has on our mental health is through stress management. Being outdoors has been shown to reduce stress, and the benefits increase with the amount of time spent outside. Want a specific number to aim for? 120 minutes of outdoor recreation each week has robust effects on general health and psychological wellbeing.
Improved mood: For a quick mood boost, research recommends spending time in nature. One systematic review found that nature-based activities improved depressive moods, reduced anxiety, improved positive affect, and reduced negative affect for participants.
Reduced cortisol: Cortisol, a.k.a. the stress hormone, has its place in our “fight or flight” response—but if cortisol is heightened for too long, we feel negative effects. Getting outside reduces our cortisol levels, especially when we’re spending between 20-30 minutes outside.
7 ways to make your health more “wild” and get outdoors
Ready to get your prescribed dose of nature? There are tons of ways to make your health more “wild” and enjoy the health benefits of nature. Here are a few to try adding to your routine:
- Start your day with sunlight exposure. As early as possible, get outside and let the sunshine hit your eyes. If you’re already at work by the time the sun rises, prioritize getting outside for a break (even if it’s cloudy or cold) or spending time near a window.
- Take a walk or exercise early. While you’re getting your early sunlight exposure, take at least a quick 5-minute walk or do your morning HIIT workout outside. This early exercise will help you turn off melatonin production and increase cortisol.
- Replace your social media scrolling with a quick walk. Instead of sitting and scrolling during a work break, take a brisk 5-10 minute outdoor walk. If you’re not up for a walk, sit in the sunlight and enjoy the warmth of the sun’s rays on your skin.
- Add some tech-free time to your day. Set aside specific times of day—early morning, midday, and sunset—to unplug and enjoy some phone-free time of meditation, reading, or breathing. These moments not only reduce your blue light exposure, but they can also help you reduce stress.
- Watch the sunset. Just as early-morning natural light exposure helps our bodies wake up, evening sun exposure stimulates the production of melatonin. Mentally, the sunset also provides a cue to help us wind down.
- Prioritize daylight time during winter. With less daylight and colder temperatures, it can be tempting to stay indoors as much as possible during winter. Instead, think about ways you can keep up your “wild” habits. For example, can you enlist a friend to take a pre-work walk once a week? Can you aim for shorter, more frequent time outdoors, rather than relying on one long daily hike? Can you invest in warm outdoors gear that can stand up to the elements? Lay the groundwork to be able to enjoy nature year-round.
- Start an outdoor hobby. Outdoor activities like basketball, golfing, cycling, or gardening can be fun activities to incorporate into daily life. In the winter, try hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, or simply going for a walk with a friend. These outdoor hobbies also provide a social outlet and exercise, which can really help with physical, mental, and emotional health.
As we learn more about all of the different factors that affect our health, our relationship with nature can’t be underestimated. By spending more time outdoors, we can enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of nature, while also getting more in touch with our wild roots. Who knows? Soon, your healthcare team might be writing you a nature prescription with a suggested daily dose of 20 minutes a day. Now that’s a cure we can get behind.
Li Q. (2010). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), 9–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3
Godbey, Geoffrey. “Outdoor Recreation, Health, and Wellness: Understanding and Enhancing the Relationship.” SSRN, May 29, 2009. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1408694, 3.
Nair, R., & Maseeh, A. (2012). Vitamin D: The "sunshine" vitamin. Journal of pharmacology & pharmacotherapeutics, 3(2), 118–126. https://doi.org/10.4103/0976-500X.95506
Young S. N. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, 32(6), 394–399.
Masters, Alina, Seithikurippu R Pandi-Perumal, Azizi Seixas, Jean-Louis Girardin, and Samy I McFarlane. “Melatonin, the Hormone of Darkness: From Sleep Promotion to Ebola TreatmentAlina.” Brain disorders & therapy. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2014. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25705578/.
Robbins, Jim. “Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health.” Yale Environment 360. Yale School of the Environment, January 9, 2020. https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health
Coventry PA, Brown JenniferVE, Pervin J, et al. Nature-based outdoor activities for mental and physical health: Systematic review and meta-analysis. SSM - Population Health. 2021;16. doi:10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100934