Why Spending Time Outside is Good for Your Health and How to Get Started Today

by | Jul 6, 2022 | Articles, Blog, Body, Environmental

We all have stress. It comes in many forms. As a military spouse, you might be dealing with constant cycles of stress due to deployments, moves, lack of employment, etc. Recently, I felt like stress was hitting me from every direction. My husband was alerted for a no-notice deployment overseas, I had just accepted an invitation to speak at a wellness conference the following month, I was in the thick of training for an ultra-trail race, I was nursing an injury that will likely require surgery, and school let out for the summer. All of a sudden, my best laid plans were falling apart at the seams and I was in desperate need of more time. I remember wondering, how on earth am I going to do it all while also staying physically healthy and emotionally sound?

Army life can get a little hectic. Whether I’m solo-parenting while my soldier is deployed or maintaining a career through multiple duty stations, being a military spouse can be its own kind of crazy. I’ve found that I can’t make more time, but I can take steps to maintain my wellbeing. One of the key ingredients to staying healthy is to force myself outside. The outdoors has a way of bringing me back to center. A jog on a nearby trail, for example, offers an escape where I can clear my head, breathe deeply, or just be. When I return, I’m always more relaxed and have a fresh perspective on the challenges I’m facing.  
In his 1915 work, Travels in Alaska, naturalist John Muir wrote, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” It turns out Muir’s words are as true today as they were 107 years ago. In fact, a host of recent studies substantiate Muir’s thoughts and my anecdotal experiences.


The human body’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS), also known as the “fight or flight” system, helps you react during times of danger and stress. When activated, it causes an increase in cortisol, simultaneously innervating other systems of the body, and protecting you from danger. It can look like anything from running away from an angry bear, to trying to balance life and solo-parenting while your spouse is deployed, to moving to a new location, to being anxious about a doctor appointment. The SNS makes your blood pressure rise, increases your heart rate, decreases gut motility, and even causes your hands to sweat. It can also increase inflammation, anxiety, and depression. You need this system, but it can easily become overstimulated and stressed. There are things you can do to help your body transition back to the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” system. One way is to immerse yourself in nature.

Leading shinrin-yoku (also known as forest bathing) researcher, Quing Li, observed participants who went on two two-hour long hikes over the course of a day. Each participant showed significant reductions in cortisol and adrenalin levels, and an increase in Natural Killer T cells, which are proven to fight cancer. Most remarkably, the positive effects from the hikes continued to last for up to another seven days after they completed their hikes. Numerous studies have shown that you can attain the physiological benefits of being outside for 120 minutes per week. That breaks down to about twenty to thirty minutes a day. Medical doctors have even begun to treat patients suffering from anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure with a “nature pill” instead of prescription medicines, advising them to spend prescribed amounts of time in nature.


Life can sometimes make it difficult to get outside for twenty minutes a day. Between a long day at work or a never-ending to-do list, time often seems to be fleeting. Even the climate can challenge getting outside. For example, Fort Hood, Texas’ 100-degree summers, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington’s nine months of rain might make you want to stay indoors. In times like these, I have found myself relying on a mental shift—a reframing of my mindset and remembering what I know is true. I know what I need to do to feel well, and I also know that the first step is the most difficult. The simple act of stepping through my door to the outside and spending any amount of time in nature can decrease fatigue, reduce anxiety and depression, reduce inflammation, increase immune system function, improve memory, increase creativity, and improve my overall sense of wellbeing. 


There is also a significant emotion that can tap into getting even more benefits from your natural surroundings. It’s the emotion of awe and has been explored for centuries by writers and philosophers. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that scientists begin hypothesizing and testing this emotion and what it does for you. Awe can come in many forms: seeing snow for the first time, the vastness of the Grand Canyon, or an incredibly colorful sunset. It can also be something smaller, like the wonder you feel when seeing the beauty of a new bird that’s come to your feeder, or the amazing fragrance of spring. It has been defined by leading awe scholar, Dacher Keltner, as the combination of fear, happiness, and pleasure all at once. It’s seeing something new that doesn’t fit with your everyday expectations of the world and according to psychologists is said to be “the emotion we feel in response to something vast that defies our existing frame of reference in one area or another and leads us to change our perception of that frame of reference.” The power of awe makes you feel like a small piece of something larger. You zoom out and the bigger picture is clearer. Your focus becomes less about yourself, and your interactions are more community-driven.  


The first step in reaping these nature benefits is by stepping outside and leaving technology at home. A pre-pandemic study showed that Americans spent an average of eleven and a half hours on some sort of tech every day. The thought of being tied to tech for nearly all my waking hours makes me cringe, but if you’re like me and the thought of not having a way to get help or the ability to capture a special moment outside, don’t despair. Getting out with your phone is just fine and can even be beneficial; however, it must not be a distraction. Be mindful of your attention to the surroundings and not your to-do list or the text messages that keep popping up. Turn your phone to silent and have it as a “just in case.”

Next, try appreciating your time outside with all five of your senses. See the color of the sky and make note of the movement of the leaves on the trees. Hear the birds singing and the wind blowing. Feel the cool grass or the temperature of the air. Smell the different fragrances of the changing of the seasons. And taste something growing in your garden or edible berries growing in the wild. As you spend more time outside, engaging the world around you with all your senses will be second nature. Don’t overthink it. Just by spending time in the outdoors you’re reaping the benefits of your natural world and your biophilic responses are automatically taking care of you. Just as you work to exercise and eat healthy, think of this time as self-care. 


Nature is therapy and may even be the place where you can feel the most relaxed, restored, and un-judged. And the best news of all, if there are times when getting out just isn’t possible, or you need an extra dose of nature throughout your day, you can always recall a special outdoor place. It’s that special place you can recall in an instant. A place that you remember from your childhood, a wonderful space in nature that you’ve visited at some point in your life, or even a destination that you’ve dreamed about visiting. Take just a moment and visualize this place. The mind is a powerful tool, and nature recall gives you the ability to take yourself out of those stressful situations by bringing up images of nature and using all your senses. You can immediately do amazing things for your mind and body and recharge that inner battery. As you begin to breathe more deeply there will be an automatic switch in your autonomic nervous system moving away from your overworked fight or flight system to your more beneficial rest and digest system. 

So, I encourage you to do one thing today that will get you outside. Tune in and be open to the experience rather than seeking a certain outcome. If it helps you to have accountability, schedule some time in nature with your friend or neighbor. Your life gives you so many challenges, but a reframing of how you see those challenges can provide you with many opportunities to seek new adventure, meet new people, and discover that special place in nature.


Alison Portis is a certified wellness professional with experience working at West Point’s Center for Enhanced Performance, LiveStrong at the YMCA, and StandFast Alliance. Her experiences have allowed her to focus on the mind-body connection, biofeedback, fitness training, injury prevention, and outdoor education. She finds joy in teaching the importance of getting outside and all of nature’s benefits regarding healing optimization and health promotion. She is passionate about developing a sense of connection among individuals, and empowering them to be resilient, mindful, and holistic in their approach to a healthy lifestyle. If Ali isn’t outside with her husband and two young kids exploring wherever the Army sends them, you can find her running a favorite trail with their Weimaraner, Ladybird.

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