By Kimberly N.

Wellness. It is a comprehensive, yet elusive term for many of us. Let’s face it. Life can get rough and throw us around like a rag doll.  Let’s discuss why it’s so important to step outside when this happens. As the days get longer, residents in our community can often go outdoors to enjoy the nicer weather.  It’s wonderful seeing people out enjoying themselves, but it can make some of us feel deflated about what we are NOT doing for ourselves. For some, getting outdoors can be a daunting task. How can we change that?  We can start by walking out of our front doors, one step at a time. Science says that our bodies have a positive physiological response to being surrounded by nature and we can all use a healthy dose of what some call green nature therapy.

Unfortunately, our brains, every day, absorb negative energy from a plethora of sources.  With an onslaught of daily stress, our minds and bodies accumulate harmful toxins that affect our physical and mental health.  According to the American Psychological Association, here are a few ways stress can affect our individual bodies:

Musculoskeletal system: With an onset of stress, the muscles tense up all at once.  When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders, like migraine or tension headaches or chronic pain throughout our bodies.

Respiratory system: The respiratory system supplies oxygen to cells and removes carbon dioxide waste from the body.  Stress and strong emotions can present with respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts.  Psychological stressors can exacerbate breathing problems for people.

Cardiovascular: Chronic stress, or a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.

Endocrine: When someone perceives a situation to be challenging, threatening or uncontrollable, the brain initiates a cascade of events involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is the primary driver of the endocrine stress response. This ultimately results in an increase in the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which include cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone”.

The reproductive system, gastrointestinal system, and nervoussystemare also affected by acute or chronic stress.  So, how can we manage the onslaught of stress that we continue to experience in our daily lives?  Step one: get outdoors. 

The Mental Benefits of Getting Outdoors

Our brains need a break. We spend most of our day filtering, processing and responding to stimulation. This constant demand on our mental reserves needs to be relieved.  Nature provides the space for our brains to do this and restore ourselves. It is in our genetic programming for nature to activate the part of our brain responsible for empathy and love.  It can actually make us nicer people!  According to psychologists, exposure to nature helps us shrug off societal pressures, allowing us to remember and value more important things like relationships, sharing, and community.  Focusing on what is around you allows your brain to see what is, instead of the “what ifs” that often make anxiety and depression worse.  A study by the University of Chicago found that people in neighborhoods with green spaces and with trees reported a better ability to cope with life’s demands and stresses.  Studies have shown that spending time outdoors can: 1) Increase feelings of contentment. 2) Reduce depression. 3) Reduce feelings of anger and 4) Slow down anxiety.

The Physical Benefits of Getting Outdoors

Spending regular time in green spaces or outdoors in nature has been shown to be positive for our physical health as well.  The University of Minnesota reports that time spent outside impacts our endocrine, immune and nervous system.  When you are spending time in nature (or even just looking at nature scenes) your blood pressure lowers and the tension in your muscles is released.  Other benefits include:

Healthier sleep: Better sleep is central to good brain health. Stepping out of your door (or even sitting by a window) can help to regulate your circadian rhythms and improve your ability to fall and stay asleep.

Improved eyesight: Natural settings also are beneficial for your eyesight. Your eye muscles need exercise.  Your eyes will be both relaxed and strengthened when you are able to focus on objects far away. Outside you might look across a landscape, look up to clouds or stretch to the top of a tree. You naturally alternate between looking at objects close by and far away.

Pain Management: In one study, surgery patients who were exposed to high-intensity sunlight reported less stress and marginally less pain, and therefore took less pain medication.  A different study was conducted that observed patients who were recovering in the hospital, recovered faster in a room with a window looking out at trees, reported less pain, and were out of the hospital quicker. There is a logic behind the tradition of bringing flowers and plants to those in the hospital!

According to some studies, spending time outdoors can also enhance creativity, restore focus, help with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), boost our immune systems and make us feel like it’s easier to exercise.  Have trouble sleeping?  Try downloading an app to produce nature sounds to get better rest.  Suffer from a headache?  Feeling run down?  Feeling pain?  Try a dose of “green nature therapy.”  It’s FREE.  There are many activities that can be achieved outdoors.  Find one, even if it means taking one step at a time.

Jo, Crystal, A Place for Mom, Senior Living Blog, The Surprising Way Getting Outdoors Improves Your Brain Health, 2018.
American Psychological Association, Stress Effects on the Body, 2019.

About author View all posts

Guest Author