If the past few years have brought anything home, it’s the importance of taking care of our health. Living in Midcoast Maine, we are lucky to have one of the most effective health boosters literally in our backyards: Outdoor natural spaces! Spending time outdoors, even just 15 minutes a day, is incredibly good for your physical and mental health.
Of course you can improve your physical health by choosing to actively exercise or recreate in a physically adventurous way – A good hike, kayak, ski, or bike ride will do any of us a world of good! But many of the most deep-rooted benefits that the outdoors bring to our health accrue simply by being outdoors in a green or blue space, no specific activity necessary. Step into the woods or sit at the waterside, and your body and mind will begin to heal.
One of the key reasons for this is that outdoor environments decrease stress. In a study analyzing 290 million people, scientists found that spending time in green spaces made people sleep longer at night and have slower heartbeats, as well as reducing the risk of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Even just looking up from your desk or screen and surveying the wider world around you helps you become less nearsighted. By focusing your eyes at varying depths and on naturally moving objects in the natural world – look at your feet as you walk, then up at the fluttering leaves – benefits your eye health.
Supporting the health of your mind starts with taking a single deep breath outdoors. Fresh outside air can be hugely beneficial since the elevated levels of carbon dioxide inside offices and schools directly suppress cognition. Your brain thinks better when fed the fresh air made by the trees and oceans we are so lucky to have surrounding us.
Your mind also thinks differently outside. It senses, perceives, and processes information in changed processes, becoming more alive to its surroundings and better able to make observations and connections. New studies even show the volume of gray matter in your brain grows with more time spent outside, and shrinks when you’re cooped up. Get outside to get smarter!
I know I feel happiest when I’m outside. Sometimes I feel positively giddy with sunshine and green leaves – and that’s no coincidence. Innumerable studies have shown time in nature protects against depression, including by reducing blood flow to the part of the brain associated with negative thought patterns.
Even microbes found in the soil have antidepressant effects, so get your hands dirty outside for your own mental wellness.
These combined impacts make a real difference for a lot of the social challenges we see cropping up in schools, workplaces, and homes: People who spend time outside are physically healthier, more creative, more empathetic, have increased attention spans and concentration, improved self-discipline and impulse control, and have better social connection, being more likely to engage with each other and the world.
These changes are important for children as they create their social frameworks and behavioral patterns; for elders as they seek to maximize the longevity of their minds and bodies; and for everyone else, as we each strive to care for the tender creatures that we each are.
Many of you already are as fit as you are because for decades you have immersed yourself in the wealth of health that surrounds us, and many new neighbors have made the move up to the Midcoast to be able to similarly access all the benefits of a daily dose of nature. If you’re looking for where to get outside or how to connect with others to explore with, just go to midcoastconservancy.org.
There you’ll learn about our 60 public preserves with more than 95 miles of trails and many water access points, hundreds of annual public walks and programs, and more.
(Midcoast Conservancy is an innovative conservation organization working to protect and restore vital lands and waters on a scale that matters. For more information, go to midcoastconservancy.org.)