Human. Nature. Throughout the last century these two words have become burdened with serious complexity.
For thousands of years, humans have evolved to live symbiotically with nature. But with its raw landscapes, variable weather, delicate systems and unpredictable denizens, nature can be demanding and uncomfortable. In response, we’ve used our near superpower capabilities to imagine, calculate, build, interact and multi-task to create an incredibly complex society and urban environment that satisfies our every need.
But does it?
Our society is creative and awe-inspiring. But is it an environment designed for human nature? How does your lifestyle and perception of health align with the natural world? And more specifically, what effect does nature — or lack of it — have on your health and well-being?
A healthy dose of reality
We exist in climate-controlled spaces, rely on powered vehicles for transportation, extend daylight hours with artificial light, fuel ourselves with an industrial food system and have reconfigured the work day to support a luxurious, sedentary lifestyle. It’s an existence of ease and comfort that sounds like it would protect our well-being.
And yet, our collective health is suffering.
According to Health System Tracker, an analysis released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the U.S. spends a disproportionate amount of money on health care relative to its wealth. What do we have to show for our protected lifestyle and large health care investments?
A Chronic Disease Overview published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that chronic diseases and conditions — such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and arthritis — are among the most common, costly and preventable of all health problems. As recent as 2014, seven of the top 10 causes of death were chronic diseases.
Many people point to longer life spans as a measurement of better health. But even in this category, the U.S. falls short of its peers. A paper published by the National Academies of the Sciences, Engineering and Medicine revealed that Americans live shorter lives and experience more injuries and illnesses than people in comparable, high-income countries. Of the 17 high-income countries analyzed, the U.S. has the highest obesity rate and second highest death rate for coronary heart disease.
Clearly, we’re doing something wrong.
Health measurement numbers are concrete, but ask anyone who spends time outside and you will hear variations on the same theme. Dave Roknic is a freelance writer and editor who is a long-time backpacker and avid canoer. For one long stint he lived in Mammoth Lakes, California, where he backpacked across the Eastern Sierra.
“Americans — adults and kids — live in comfort-controlled and sterile environments at all times,” Roknic says. “Nothing ever gets dirty. There is a baseline your body gets used to and without exposure to nature, its dirt, physical challenges and rewards, it can mess up your physiology.”
Deb Newson, freestyle program director at Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, has coached freestyle skiing (moguls) since 1996 and is one of the few full-time, female coaches in the country. If anyone can speak with authority on what being outside does to adults, children and teens, it’s her.
“Participating in a demanding sport, like freestyle skiing teaches kids to be prepared,” Newson says. “Their backpacks are full of ‘just in case’ items. And they learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. They become confident athletes and individuals.”
Underneath the veneer of our technological advances we are still, fundamentally, animals. Kingdom Animalia, to be specific. Our genus, Homo, is a member of the taxonomic family known as the great apes, or Hominidae. We share 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos, 90 percent with cats, and about 60 percent with chickens. Like it or not, nature shaped us, and, as a result, relationships with the outdoors and natural systems are our biological heritage. In all our logic and advancements, we are only now beginning to understand the profound effect that exposure to these natural systems has on our physical and mental health.
Let’s start with inflammation, your body’s biological response to harmful stimuli. It can be acute, such as a response to a pulled muscle or allergen, or chronic, such as arthritis or the inflammation that leads to Type 2 diabetes. Inflammation is associated with an array of ailments including some cancers, auto-immune diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, skin problems, emotional stress, arthritis, atherosclerosis and depression.
Multiple studies have linked exposure to nature with a reduction in inflammation and other health benefits. A 2015 Frontiers in Psychology paper found that walks in forested areas, but not urban ones, reduced blood glucose levels and inflammation. Other physiological responses to exposure to nature include an improved state of relaxation, which improves sleep, boosts immunity and counters the adverse effects of stress.
There are also profound psychological effects. Today, more than 50 percent of people live in urban areas. Urbanization is linked with increased levels of mental illness, but studies show that a 90-minute walk in a natural environment can reduce negative thoughts. It is thought that the experiences of awe, enhanced vitality and attention restoration that time in nature provides are key links to these health benefits.
With all these studies, one take-away is certain: Accessible natural areas are vital for physical and mental health.
Roknic agrees. When he moved from Mammoth Lakes to Chicago, he and his wife, Dot Kane, turned to canoeing for natural escapes and relief from the city.
“Living in Chicago creates a kind of hole that we both have that needs to be refilled periodically,” he says. “Backpacking is a difficult option. But canoeing in Minnesota’s Boundary Water Canoe Area lets us really get out and away. We’ll see a loon pop up or a moose in the distance.”
Even Newson, who is fortunate to call Vermont’s Green Mountains home, seeks to take advantage of outdoor activities in all her training-related travels. Oregon waterfall hikes, trails in the Alps, cliff jumping of Norwegian fjords and surfing in Australia are a few of her adventures.
Adopt an outdoor mindset
Newson does not like the cold — a surprising revelation from a person whose livelihood depends on being outside, hours at a time, in the heart of winter on a mountainside.
“Well, I don’t like to be cold,” Newson laughs. “But once I’m engaged in coaching I forget about it. If I have a good song in my head, hand warmers where I can feel some warmth and a group of athletes who want to get better at skiing, it’s easy to maintain a positive attitude. Having a purpose for being outside makes all the difference. If you love what you’re doing, it seems to matter less if it’s sunny or not.”
Newson’s attitude is a critical motivator. After all, the only way to reap the benefits of nature is to be in nature. It makes it easier if you find an activity you love — rock climbing, biking, canoeing, hiking, skiing, camping, mountaineering, horseback riding, fishing, stand-up paddle boarding, bird watching, surfing, geocaching or even painting. But for most of us, there are gaps of time in between participating in these activities.
“In your down time you need to stay fit,” Roknic says. “You want to enjoy these experiences for as long as you can and be physically and mentally prepared, so the effort feels easier.”
In this way, going to the gym is not simply for lowering the number on a scale. You go with a mindset to maintain your fitness levels, so you can enjoy your outdoor activity. Even your yoga practice can become a way to train for your outdoor pursuits.
You also need to practice simply being outside. Walk to the post office instead of driving. Walk or jog around your neighborhood instead of marching on your treadmill and watching the television. For a few years, Roknic incorporated walking to work from the train station, two miles round trip. Not only did it help his fitness levels, but he became more tolerant of challenging weather.
Newson tells her athletes something similar. “We need to make sure you can perform in any type of weather or snow conditions,” she says. “You never know.”
You belong outside
Being outside is not just for athletic aspirations. Remember the studies linking physiological and mental benefits to getting out into nature? The Japanese have turned spending time in the woods into a national health program called “forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku. You gain measurable benefits in as little as 15 minutes spent immersed in a forest, listening, observing and contemplating. And simply being near natural water features such as streams, oceans and waterfalls has proved to reduce stress and increase happiness and blood flow to your brain. Can’t get to a forest? Find a park. Or a courtyard. Or even a sidewalk bench near a tree or fountain during your lunch break.
Work is stressful. Newson, for example, must manage her athletes’ ups and downs and safety, along with parents’ expectations on a daily basis. “Being outdoors in the fresh air and enjoying gorgeous places keeps me sane, no doubt,” she says.
Newson’s words resonate. For ultimately, it is away from the distractions and fast-paced style of urban life and contemporary demands that we can truly connect with the essence of what makes us human and, consequently, find a nourishing and healthy way to recalibrate our well-being.
Open the door. Step outside. A world of wellness awaits.