It’s the first nice day in more than a week. After days and days of rain, people on the street seem to be less stressed — smiling more, interacting more, and making eye contact. What is it about being outdoors—especially on a nice day?
There’s Power Out There!
Why is it so important for us to connect with nature and be outdoors? Because mounting research shows the profound effect that fresh air, plants, trees and natural outdoor elements have on our health and well-being. When you spend time outdoors, especially being active, you can lift your mood, think more positively, feel more internal calm and greater harmony with the world around you.
Studies have shown that being in a natural, outdoor environment is one of the very best things you can do for your health:
- Levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our mood, rises when we are outside. One study found that regular outdoor runners were less anxious and depressed than people who ran indoors on a treadmill, and had higher levels of post-exercise endorphins, the feel-good brain chemicals associated with “runner’s high.”
- Exposure to nature reduces pain and illness and speeds recovery time. A study of post-operative patients, those who had rooms with a view of natural surroundings needed less pain medication and spent fewer days in the hospital than those who faced a brick wall.
- Research by Dr. David Lewis, the man who coined the term “road rage,” found that the scent of grass has a significant calming effect on out-of-control drivers.
- You also do your lungs a favor when you exercise outdoors: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air in the U.S. is two to five times more polluted than outdoor air (meaning the outdoor air is 75% less polluted than indoor air!). Fresh air is also rich in negative ions (oxygen molecules with an extra electron). These negative ions have been linked to improved sense of well-being, heightened awareness and alertness, decreased anxiety, and a lower resting heart rate.
We don’t all need to pick up stakes and move to the woods or the mountains in order to re-establish our health, but we do need to spend time outside. The EPA estimates that we spend more than 90% (many scientists argue this number is higher) of our time indoors, inside our homes, our offices, our cars – we rarely indulge in this connection.
Trivia on Air Quality
A great test for air quality is the presence of lichen and moss. This family of algae and fungi that grows on rocks, trees and soil, from ocean shorelines to mountain peaks, will only grow where the air and other environmental conditions are clean.
Slashing your Stress Level in the Great Outdoors
As a culture, we are used to accepting stress as part of life. For some, it’s considered a Badge-of-Honor. What we don’t often recognize are the physical effects of allowing stress to accompany us throughout our days. Your entire system is directly affected by the physical, mental and emotional stresses of your daily life. Spending time outside enjoying nature is one of the most basic ways to help reduce your stress level and boost your immune system, a critical aspect to overall health and well-being.
What’s more, studies show that our environment contributes up to 70% of our stress. Unfortunately, most people spend over 90-percent of their waking hours indoors. In today’s automated world of technology and urban living, our bonds with nature have been fractured and people are more rushed, stressed, overweight and depressed then ever before. Seldom do people find themselves enjoying the outdoors and reaping the health benefits of serenity and calm that nature has to offer.
Real Relaxation Isn’t Found on the Couch
Some people think relaxation and stress reduction consists of lying back in an easy chair and watching TV, or having a cocktail with friends, or perhaps taking in a movie. All this may seem and even feel relaxing—but there is a big difference between this kind of repose and the ability to reach much deeper and revitalizing state of relaxation. Regular exercise, with attention to your mental and physical fitness—especially in the outdoors, surrounded by nature’s calming effects—can bring you deep, restorative relaxation. This restorative relaxation is the immune-system boosting, stress-reducing kind—the kind you’ll never get on the couch, or even at the gym.
You can try the following exercises and techniques when you find yourself feeling tense, anxious, and stressed. They can be especially useful at the outset of a workout, or during your post-workout cool-down. Or, when you’re trying to shake off the effects of a busy day.
The PMJ Technique
Did you know that most of our thoughts can be broken down into three types: plans, memories, and judgments? P-M-J. Now try using this mindfulness exercise out on the path to clear your mind, root out the cobwebs, and let go of any lingering tension or stress:
As you walk or jog, center yourself with a few deep breaths. Connect to this moment through your breath, paying attention to your body moving and the terrain underfoot. Keep your mind clear while still noticing the colors, textures and smells around you. If a thought should arise, quickly identify it and release it. Is it a plan? A memory? A judgment? Notice that once the thought is identified, it is released. Poof. Gone. Like magic, your mind is clear again. Continue to bring your mind back to the present moment.
Having difficulty clearing your mind? Ask yourself this: What is my next thought? Notice what happens? Poof! Just like that your mental screen is clear. Asking this question will instantly draw you to the present!
Cardio Cool down – Relaxed Environmental Integration
Find a sprig of foliage, like a cluster of pine needles, a eucalyptus or bay leaf, or a fragrant flower. Curl the needles or leaf in your fingers to release the aromas. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and connect to the “core of your core.” Once you feel connected, centered and clear, begin to walk or jog back to your starting place. Feel through your feet, breathing deeply, noticing colors, textures and sounds. Keep the leaf in your hand so you can breath in this aroma along the way. When you near your starting spot, walk it out until your heart rate comes all the way down. Find a quiet place to stretch and enjoy the aromas, the sights and the sounds around you. Now this is the original aroma-therapy!
Reach Out and Touch Something
When was the last time you touched nature? Ran your hand across a tree limb, or stuck your nose in a flower? Make time for moments in your workout when you can make direct physical contact with the natural world around you. It will only deepen the connection you’re establishing with your environment.
“The Redwood’s Got Your Back”
In my group of friends, we have this saying, “The redwoods have got your back.” When one of us is feeling stressed, working through a problem, or simply feeling out of sorts, we go into the forest for fresh air, exercise and the solitude that helps us to work through it. Sometimes when you’re “in it,” it’s tough to see the forest through the trees and remember the many gifts nature has to offer—clarity, serenity, peace and inspiration—so we’ll use this one phrase as a reminder—“Redwoods got your back.” That’s all it takes. We head for the forest.
Rock in Your Pocket
Towards the end of a group workout and before moving into a cardio cool-down, I often suggest to my clients that they pick up an attractive rock or stone to hold in their hand. At that point, we’ll take a few minutes to find a quiet place to sit, meditate and focus on a goal, wish or happy thought for the day. As each member becomes absolutely clear and centered, they’ll take off on their 5-10 minute cool-down, all the while holding the rock in hand and focusing on their goal or happy thought. Then after the workout is done and throughout the day, they can continue to reach for that rock in their pocket to remind them.
Thanksuary: The Core of Your Core
My hope for you is that each and every session is an adventure, an experience that is both invigorating and peaceful. With a little scouting, you’ll find many places where you can stimulate your body, draw power from your surroundings, as well as center and quiet your mind. You will enjoy not just a full-body experience, but a full-being experience: body, mind and soul.
I have found special quiet places in my neighborhood (and I live in the City!) where I’ve connected deeply at various times, and whenever I return I can instantly get to that place: the Core of My Core. It’s a combination of familiarity, sensory affiliation, and emotional conditioning that takes me there. I call these special places my “Thanksuary.” I feel a deep feeling of gratitude. I’ve learned that feelings of thankfulness and gratitude are actually stress reducers. While engaged in thinking and feeling grateful, it is difficult—if not impossible—for your body and mind to experience stress and anxiety. During your next outing or when you are moved to, find a Thanksuary of your very own.