Go outside! (Why contact with nature is crucial for health.)

When addressing our health, many of us tend to focus on the quality of our diet and exercise as the primary methods of improving our overall wellness. We often believe that if we perfectly “dial in” our diet and exercise routine, then optimal health will surely follow. This concentration on perfecting both food and fitness in the quest for well-being can often lead to the neglecting of certain important relationships in our lives, particularly relationships with others.

But what about your relationship with nature?

You may not have considered the possibility of fostering a “relationship” with nature – after all, how can you have a relationship with a non-human entity?

From an anecdotal perspective, how many of us have taken a long walk in the woods, and felt soothed by the sound of the wind in the trees and the crisp smell of leaves? Or have been moved by the beauty of a snow-capped mountain range? Who wouldn’t enjoy an evening watching the sunset at the beach, sand between the toes, with the rhythmic ocean waves lapping at the shore?

Experiencing these profound moments of peace, happiness, or wellness in the context of nature is a universal event, and demonstrates that contact with nature is an integral part of our well-being as humans. In a public health context, exposure to nature has been used as therapy for short-term recovery from stress or mental fatigue, faster physical recovery from illness, and long-term overall improvement on people’s health and well being (1).

Research supports the theory that our relationship with nature is a fundamental component of maintaining good health. This “biophilia hypothesis” suggests that there is an innate affiliation of human beings to other living organisms, both flora and fauna, and perhaps even an innate bond with nature more generally.

The biophilia theory is supported by both common sense and clinical evidence. Many controlled trials and observational studies have demonstrated the positive therapeutic value of both the physical and visual exposure to nature, with benefits shown for a diverse range of diagnoses spanning from schizophrenia to obesity.

This biophilia theory makes sense in an evolutionary context as well.

Many species of animals use habitat selection as a criteria for successful survival, focusing mainly on patterns of tree density and openness of view. Early humans were no different; a preference for living near water and an abundance of green plants would have indicated greater food availability, with both edible vegetation and herbivorous animals in plentitude (2).

The ability to identify relaxing, restorative natural settings would have also allowed paleolithic humans the opportunity to recover from stress or fatigue, and would have been adaptive to survival. Those individuals who were able to settle in these types of environments would have gained a survival advantage, which may explain human beings’ preference for certain landscapes.

While we evolved outdoors and amongst nature for most of the last two million years of our species’ existence, the movement to a largely indoor environment has been a recent development for humans. Much like our diet, our physical environment has changed drastically in a comparatively short amount of time.

We have broken our strong connection with the natural environment very recently, and have not had the chance to adapt to our new life of shelter and confinement. The advent of electricity has been even more recent, allowing our world to be inundated with artificial light at any time of day (or night).

A lack of sunlight and/or excessive amounts of artificial light can have a variety of negative health consequences. (Diane Sanfilippo of Balanced Bites has written an excellent post regarding the problems with artificial light and the different ways you can reduce your exposure.)

Our relationship with nature has been overcome by our relationship with technology.

Recent news stories have focused on the idea of “nature deficit disorder”, suggesting that children who spend too much time staring at screens may develop attention deficits, hyperactivity, or depression (3). While our children may be bearing the brunt of this nature deficit, it stands to reason that those of us that spend forty hours a week or more with our eyes glued to a computer screen may have similar negative health consequences.

While we may not be able to quit our jobs, sell our houses, and move out into the wilderness (or can we?), there are many ways to alleviate our growing nature deficit:

  1. Take your exercise outsideResearch shows that exercising outside confers even greater physical and mental benefits compared to the same exercise indoors. Take a long walk at your local park (bundle up if it’s cold) rather than plugging away on the treadmill in your fluorescent-lit gym. Take advantage of warmer, sunny days and move your workout into the wilderness. It may take some creativity or extra planning, but the mental and physical benefits will be worth the effort. You may even find yourself enjoying your workout more than usual!
  2. Invest in a pet – Companion animal relationships have been essential to the survival of primitive humans, and pet-keeping was common in hunter-gatherer societies. Pet ownership not only gives people a sense of companionship and nurturance, but also provides a connection to nature in a more tangible sense. Contact with animals has been shown to decrease risk of heart disease, lessen anxiety, and reduce depression. Not to mention, there’s nothing more motivating to get outside than a hyperactive dog!
  3. Grow an indoor garden – If getting outside on a regular basis is too challenging, consider the addition of indoor foliage to your home’s interior design. Studies show that indoor plants can boost mood, improve air quality, and reduce anxiety and fatigue. Even if you live in an urban environment, bringing green foliage into your living space can greatly benefit your connection with the natural world.

Our relationship with nature is a vital component of our wellbeing, and one often neglected due to the concerns of modern life. In order to more fully address our health and wellness as humans, we must consider the biological appropriateness of our environment to be just as important as that of our diet and exercise choices.

Now I’d like to hear from you. How do you nurture your relationship with nature? What are your favorite ways to interact with the natural world?

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. says

    When my daughter was very sick, and after she died two things helped to keep me sane: yoga and hiking in the North Shore mountains of Vancouver. Just being within the trees and on the trails allowed the silence I sorely needed. Hungry for fresh air I recall filling my lungs with deep inhalations, as if to remind myself that I was still alive when so much of me felt numb.

  2. says

    Hello Chris,

    Kudos to you for drawing attention to the relationship between nature and well-being.

    I run hiking retreats in British Columbia, Canada. I use the power of poetry and the natural world to help people explore the changing terrain of their inner psychological landscapes. Nature is an especially wise teacher in this regard. It contain all the metaphors and the lessons we need for understanding where we are on the ‘curve of our own transformation.

    Keep up the good work!

    Adrian Juric
    http://www.innerlandscapes.org
    ‘Hiking Retreats for Inner Explorers’

  3. says

    This totally makes sense to me. Before reading this, I thought about this intuitively and realized the difference in my mental function when I went outside as opposed to didn’t.

  4. Pamela W says

    I have always loved spending time outdoors. When we were about 5 or 6 my sister and I tamed the ground squirrels to eat food from our hands as we sat on a huge rock in the woods behind our house. My family used to sleep out under the stars in our backyard and my dad would teach us about the stars. We always went camping and slept in a tent and went exploring in the woods. My dad taught us to look for birds nests and to be respectful of nature. Now I love to wildcraft plants that I use for teas or tinctures or other herbal products. I feel most alive when I am sitting on a rock out in the forest just listening to the wind in the trees and trying to determine what the different sounds I hear belong to. I only wish I lived closer so I could spend time there every day, in each of the seasons of the year.
    I also love to garden. It is my stress relief.

  5. Andrew D says

    This is so true and I’ve always sub-consciously know it. I can always tell that when I’m feeling overall more stressed and burnt out it coincides with me being indoors more than usual. I like to meditate during a sunset, that’s my favorite activity for communing with nature. But fishing, hunting, and hiking are great as well.

  6. says

    Big believer in this. I’ve structured my life to enable me to get out into the wilderness most weekends. Fortunately my partner has too. Last year, we managed to spend 116 days there and we work full-time. 7 days so far this year and I’m aiming for 120 days – my usual target. I read a book written by a woman who believed it is inherent for human mental health to be out there last year but couldn’t google it as I couldn’t remember what it was called. Apparently a walk in the woods equates to a dose of Prozac (not that I believe in promoting SSRI ‘s that may not work).

  7. says

    One of the reasons I love living on a farm near the Mendocino coast is the natural beauty and the daily contact with nature. I took a barefoot walk on a gorgeous beach on Friday, a conscious effort to practice earthing. On the farm, there is gravel in the driveway and prickly stuff out in the pastures, so I’m not yet sure how to manage that. I guess my feet need to toughen up. I do hug my animals a lot, though. Most chickens don’t like that, so I sit in their fenced run and let them hop up on my lap or shoulders (or head, occasionally). Now that’s contact with nature!

    I feel sure that a longing for nature is inherent in our human DNA, and probably many people don’t realize what that longing is. For sure, pets help us to reconnect with the rest of the nonhuman world, and being able to interact with my chickens and goats as well as cats and dogs is very meaningful to me. The animals are also models of healthful living. They don’t “consciously” choose a nutritious, species-appropriate diet, perhaps (it’s my job to provide that), but they respond beautifully to it, and that serves as a potent reminder that I, too, must choose a biologically appropriate diet, hence my (gradual) shift to paleo over time. Thanks for the information and inspiration, Chris!

  8. says

    makes total sense. From another angle, plenty of studies have shown nature improves mindfulness and focus. there is something not right about living amidst concrete and brick constantly, and we all need to refresh periodically.

  9. says

    My kid is less hyperactive now that aftercare includes playing outside in the fresh air for hours! And we make a habit of eating a pinch of soil from each park we visit to reconstitute our gut flora. A little dirt never hurt. It’s truly hard to limit the kid’s electronic exposure, well-meaning relative are always buying us “educational” stuff with buttons. I try to hide them or sneak them off to goodwill and usually they are not missed.

    • Sandy says

      When my son was in kindergarden, his school was new and the playground was not finished. One day he came home and said he didn’t think that Mrs. Berry knew about “getting some fresh air”. I realized how many times I must have said that in his life before and after that. Let’s get outside and get some fresh air. And I can hear my mother saying that to me too.

  10. says

    Great article, Chris. I agree with you 100% . This probably sounds a little bit over the top, but i believe that our connection to nature is a big determinant in the quality of our lives.

  11. Michelle Wylie says

    Hi Chris….I’ve been fighting a Crohns flare up which robs me of my energy and vitality. I yearn to go outside, today I even opened the windows and lay in the sunny spot for a bit. Unfortunately I am vulnerable to chills, so my Winter exposure has to be curtailed. When this happened last year, I discovered the nice reclining fold chair my mother-in-law gave me doubles as a bed when layered with blankets and parked in a sunny spot outside. I’m sure it is quite a sight, my sick bed in the front yard, but it made all the difference in how I felt about my illness. Time to pull out the chair! Thanks for the reminder–why I came to live in Oregon in the first place :-)

    • Sandy says

      As often as we have a sunny day in the midwest in the winter, I will put my chair out in front of my white barn doors out of the wind and sunbathe, even if the temperature is in the 20s. I, too, must be a site to my neighbors but the UPS man and I always discuss how many days of sunshine we will be getting this week so I know that at least he understands when he pulls into my driveway.

  12. Luke Brennan says

    I am blessed to split my residential and working locations between Indonesia and Australia, and over the years have identified how much better i feel with a daily Vitamin D injection (direct from the sun of course) and taking time to breathe in the surrounds – be it the ocean air, the flora and fauna or the simple interactions one can have with other humans during those moments of ‘active meditation’.
    For me, being engaged with life – eating + sleeping well, activating the body through various form of exercise that include natural full range of motion supports every facet of my being.
    I live like this not to create a ‘physique’ or to pontificate on morale wellness, but to know, when i wake up every morning, i am giving myself the best opportunity to be the best person for me and for the people and love one’s in my life, and the people (strangers) that i meet everyday…
    I am a believer that its a responsibility of ours that when we share our limited amount of time on this planet, we do so with grace, respect and a courtesy for everyone and everything we have the privilege to interact with…
    Thanks for the updates Chris

  13. tess says

    well done! i’ll be posting this link on my FB page (trying to “corrupt” my friends and family with the paleo/ancestral way).

    btw, i started the Personal Paleo Code last week, and my progress has been outstanding!

  14. Elanne Kresser says

    As a Feldenkrais practitioner (working with people through movement) one of the most pronounced but often overlooked negative effects of our civilized living is that we are almost continuously on flat, uniform surfaces rather than the variable surfaces of the forest floor or the beach. This affects every joint in our bodies (starting with creating rigid feet and ankles), and in turn affects the fluidity of our movements, which in turn affects the functioning of the entire nervous system. Getting out to the woods and the beaches makes our bodies and psyches meet the changing surfaces we’re on and that alone brings us much more into our wild, animal bodies and minds.

  15. Jesse Hendrix says

    This notion also be link to lunaception (sleeping in total darkness except durring full moon) to help balance hormones and promote natural fertility. Just stumbled across this idea through some of the traditional food blogger gals

  16. Glenn Atkisson says

    Great idea for rejuvenation. Yes, nature has been replaced by technology as a means of introducing some dynamics into our lives. There is so much more “action” available via technology. But exercise in a natural setting is hard to beat. There is not so much diversion, not so much stress, and you just can’t beat fresh air and a few “creatures” flitting around to make you feel alive again.

    Just yesterday, I was responding to a Dr. Mercola article on how to avoid the flu during flu season. He offered 9 suggestions to help avoid the flu. A couple were vitamin D intake and exercise. I suggested adding “getting outside for at least a half hour each day” (plus taking a pro-biotic periodically). I think it is a great aid to physical health – from the fresh air, and an even greater aid to mental health (which contributes to physical health an unmeasurable amount).

    In the Winter there are excuses given, but if I “just do it” I feel better almost immediately! Even the cozy warmth of the home feels better after an outside excursion.

  17. Donna Hay says

    I’ve always been aware of the importance of being outside to my well being…since I live in Hawaii I am able to leave my doors and windows open all the time. So I am very fortunate to almost be living outside. I am 80 years old so it has become very rejuvinating to connect with the outdoors. Particularly the Ocean..there are times when my body craves to be in it….what do you make of that?

  18. says

    I’m in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The snow has finally arrived. It’s cold. It’s here to stay for a while. For most of the day I am inside, mostly at my computer. Whenever I go outside I feel incredibly rejuvenated. I shoveled the driveway today and was enjoying every moment of it. Simply being outside, even in the snow and cold (which I am not a big fan of) has some incredible healing properties.

    Get outside!

    My lovely Boston Terrier is nice to have around as well.

    • says

      Toad, I lived in Grand Haven for years and I loved walking down to the beach in winter. Being by the water is so healing. Do you ever make it out to the beach?

      • says

        Oooh, I lived in Grand Haven in the 60’s (judged the 1st surfing contest on the lake and only surfboard repair person at the time). I’ve not been back in the cold for, let’s see, since I left Grand Haven in ’68. Glad to live in Hawaii where being outdoors is an obvious lifestyle. I have a guinea pig, Mouse, in my community garden plot across the street from my apartment, where there are 71 other plots. I can walk to my grocery store, the University of Hawaii and bike most anywhere else in the city. This article has reminded me how lucky I am to live here!

    • says

      Thanks for your post, Todd! I’m in Central New York (as in, 1 hr. from Canada, not The City) and have been waiting to use my first-ever snow shoes. Finally today the snow hit, and what’s in my inbox? Chris telling us to “Go outside!” But when I look, dang! It’s cold and windy out there! But on your advice that even when it’s cold, it’s healing, I shall put all those extra clothes on and take a long, fast walk.

      Love your blog. That’s inspiring, too.

  19. says

    Thanks for the reminder, Chris! I do love the outdoors, and there is a state park relatively close to my home. I just need to make the effort to get out there. The biggest problem for me is that since I have changed me dietary habits for the better and lost the extra fat I was carrying around, I have little tolerance for the cold.

    • says

      Maryann, I feel for you! I rather recently learned a great little phrase that has helped me look at our very snowy winters differently: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing.” For the first time since I was about ten years old I bought myself a pair of snow pants, the kind I guess people wear when snowmobiling. And for the first time, I just wore them outside (it took snow that long to finally arrive) and man, what a difference! Between them and the trapper hat, also new to me, I got rid of the last two areas of cold that were always bothersome before. I just ran all over the neighborhood and really enjoyed it, snow and wind and all.

      • says

        Lonnie, I totally agree! I really layer up when it’s cold (and I live in Nashville where it’s really not THAT cold- at least compared to Michigan, where I grew up!) I even layer my gloves.
        I was looking at pictures of my cousin who grew up in and still lives in the Lower Arctic Circle- he and his wife were out taking pics in -50º weather (not recommended!) and I realized that I have NO excuse not to get outside more during the winter!

  20. Judy says

    My recipe to de-stress and keep life in perspective:
    1 garden full of fruit trees, berries, vegetables
    9 free ranging clucking hens
    2 Nigerian Dwarf goats
    1 Australia shepherd dog
    1 5 year old child
    1 husband
    To create urban homestead, turn soil to provide exercise and work muscles. Plant seeds and nurture starts, soul will also be nurtured. Visit with chickens and laugh at their antics while delighting in collecting eggs. Get love and kisses from goats while nourishing your body with their milk. Take dog for daily walk/run while receiving his love and getting exercise. Run around urban homestead with child. Harvest from garden and cook up spectacular nourishing organic dinner with husband. When sick, consult Dr Kresser. At least once/year wander backcountry wilderness for one week to sooth mind and soul and regain appreciation for all that we are blessed with.

    • says

      I couldnt have said it any better Judy. I have 3 children to run around with ( although we still never do it as often as we should) but also 7 chickens and 4 ducks that i let wander freely around the garden half the time and you could just get lost sitting outside in the sun watching them do their funny little things. I discovered yesterday too, just walking around in circles in the 3foot deep swimming pool ( its summer where i am) is sooo soothing… Water, fresh air, sunshine, even rain! Lovely!

  21. says

    Yayyy! Thank you! This is a subject I am hugely passionate about, so thanks for bringing some attention to it. I also loved that you cited an E.O. Wilson book. :)

  22. Katie says

    I wanted to read the balanced bites article but all I got was a “page not found” message. Has something happened to the site?

  23. Tyler says

    Great post Chris, I am fortunate enough to live in a beautiful neighborhood in Santa Cruz where I only have to walk a 1/2 mile and I am in the middle of nature. Couple this with 2 puppies and you have a recipe for daily hour long walks through the forrest. I go one step further by making sure 90% of my walking is done barefoot to further my connection to the earth. Sounds pretty hippy but it makes me feel great and everyone in the neighborhood knows me as the guy who walks his dogs with no shirt or shoes. Keep up the great work!

  24. Suzanne says

    Yes, I agree that it’s sometimes hard to get outside in the winter for anytime. I do try and think that earthing and the barefoot movement are things to work up to.
    On another topic Chris, I loved reading your reaction to the Perfect Health Diet. It’s a great book.

  25. Bethany says

    Thanks for the article. Getting outside, at this time of year in southeast Michigan, is something I need inspiration to do. Your article has done that for me. I am wondering what you think about the ‘sleeping grounded’ idea as well as the barefoot movement.

    Thanks for all you do to keep us informed.

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