Among the many health benefits of outdoor physical activity a better mental state is often overlooked. It shouldn’t be.
Writers have known this truth for centuries. The 23rd Psalm speaks of being led into green pastures and beside still waters. Shakespeare in As You Like It has the banished Duke describe his exile in the Forest of Arden thus:
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Then that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril then the envious Court?
But there’s often a reluctance to get outside and active, The outdoor writer George Washington Sears, better known by his pen name “Nessmuk” is worth quoting at length here for his brilliant destruction of the myth of being in nature as “roughing it”
“With a large majority of prospective tourists and outers, “camping out” is a leading factor in the summer vacation. And during the long winter months they are prone to collect in little knots and talk much of camps, fishing, hunting, and “roughing it.” The last phrase is very popular and always cropping out in the talks on matters pertaining to a vacation in the woods. I dislike the phrase. We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home; in towns and cities; in shops, offices, stores, banks—anywhere that we may be placed—with the necessity always present of being on time and up to our work; of providing for the dependent ones; of keeping up, catching up, or getting left. …As for the few fortunate ones who have no call to take a hand in any strife or struggle, who not only have all the time there is, but a great deal that they cannot dispose of with any satisfaction to themselves or anybody else—I am not writing for them; but only to those of the world’s workers who go, or would like to go, every summer to the woods. And to these I would say, don’t rough it; make it as smooth, as restful and pleasurable as you can.”
And now, it seems, there is science to back up the Psalmist, Shakespeare, and Nessmuk. We’ve known that physical activity produces endorphins, hormones that elevate mood, for a while. But now, as Outside detailed in an article a couple of years ago, there are studies that show other benefits from being in nature. “…leisurely forest walks, compared with urban walks, yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. On subjective tests, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety.” Japan, home of one of the highest suicide rates in the world, in response has created “Forest Therapy trails” that are drawing up to five million visitors a year.
Here in the United States we have enormous acreages of public land, most of which is open to recreational use. Ken Burns might have called the National Parks America’s best idea, but it was an idea borrowed from the cities, counties, and states that began to green before. (There’s a reason William Penn used the Latin word for “woodland” in his colony’s name; he wanted one in five acres to remain undeveloped.) Participating in the outdoors is can do more than give you a memory or photographs, it can make you better in mind.
But if you do have a problem – depression, anxiety, what not – nature can help, but its not a be all and end all band aid. In the case of depression and anxiety its not only lessened by participating in the outdoors, but it also saps your determination to be involved. So if you need help, get help. Speak with friends, speak with a professional, visit a website like Hope Within The Storm for resources to help you. We talk a lot about the outdoors being for everyone. Everyone should be confident enough to part of the outdoors. If you need help, get help, so you can get out. And know its a beautiful world when the clouds lift.