When I was growing up in the sixties in suburban Pittsburgh, most of my free time was spent outdoors. From tennis to Kick the Can to ice skating to sledding, I was outside in the winter, summer, and everything in between.
Transitioning into my adult years meant increasing the amount of time in school or on the job.
After our health crisis in 2008 (read our story here), we moved to Arizona in large part to enjoy year-round access to warm temperatures. It made sense that if an indoor environment had made us sick, lots of outdoor time could speed up recovery. However, my online quest for health and my growing love for blogging led me to spend increasing amounts of time “attached” to my computer.
I’ve had to re-learn what it means to spend time outdoors and intentionally create reasons to be outside.
Inspiration to Spend Time Outdoors
Much of my inspiration has come from the children’s book The Secret Garden. I picked it up again last year and read it with new eyes. One of the prominent themes in the book is the mental and physical benefits of outdoor air.
Mistress Mary spent much of her childhood indoors without much human interaction. After the death of her parents, relatives brought her from India to England, where her senses were awakened by the mystery of her uncle’s mansion and the surrounding gardens. As the story unfolds we see Mary transform before our very eyes.
The fact was that the fresh wind from the moor had begun to blow the cobwebs out of her young brain and to waken her up a little. (p. 40)
There is no doubt that the fresh, strong, pure air from the moor had a great deal to do with it. Just as it had given her an appetite, and fighting with the wind had stirred her blood, so the same things had stirred her mind. (p. 57)
She was beginning to like to be out of doors; she no longer hated the wind, but enjoyed it. (p. 73)
Another source of inspiration has been the book Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness, and Vitality by physician Eva Selhub and naturopath Alan Logan, published in 2014. The book is a fascinating compilation of numerous studies showing the powerful impact of nature on health.
One such study, View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery, published in 1984, found that recovery rates improved if hospital patients had a view of trees as opposed to a view of a brick wall.
The patients with the tree view had shorter postoperative hospital stays, had fewer negative evaluative comments from nurses, took fewer moderate and strong analgesic doses, and had slightly lower scores for minor postsurgical complications.
If you’re looking for the science behind spending purposeful time outdoors, you’ll love what Selhub and Logan have to say. If you’re looking to reconnect with nature, the authors suggest the following:
- Practice shinrin-yoku (a Japanese concept that literally translates as “forest-air bathing,” or walking while taking in the forest environment with all senses)
- Keep plants in your office
- Employ essential oils derived from nature
- Exercise outdoors
- Own a pet
- Ground the mind with gardening and away-from-it-all excursions
- Follow a whole-food approach to nutrition (they recommend the Mediterranean Diet)
One other worthy study of note: In 2012 researchers found that four days of immersion in nature increased creativity by 50%. See Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings.
How I Spend Time Outdoors
My time outdoors has been a journey. It began with a 20-30 minute walk. I had to pry myself away from my computer. When I was outside I was preoccupied with getting back to the computer.
As my journey progressed, my senses awakened. I stopped wearing headphones and listened intently to the birds and other wildlife. I stopped wearing sunglasses (or any eyeglasses) to experience the full spectrum of light. (See Health Benefits of Natural Light.) I began to look hard at the foliage and smile at the rabbits and quail. For the first time since I was a child, I was overtaken by the beauty of everyday glimpses of nature.
Since then I have expanded my activities outside to include:
I started small and have now expanded my gardening to include an herb/ornamental garden as well as a fairy garden. Gardening has not come easily. I experienced lots of failures, but I’ve learned to cultivate plants that bring me joy as opposed to trying to live up to an expectation of growing all of my own food. My fairy garden even has solar lights that come out at dusk! (If you’re new to gardening this article does a great job covering the basics.)
We have joined the backyard chicken “groupies,” and had I known it would be such fun I would have built our coop sooner. Our chickens are incredibly entertaining as well as stress-reducing. Just watching them forage around the yard lowers my cortisol.
I now do much of my laundry outside. As I’ve explored ways to expand my outdoor time, I have become enthralled with the old-fashioned method of doing laundry. It’s relaxing, rewarding, and invigorating. It’s one of the biggest surprises of this journey!
4. My Nook
I am in the process of creating a nook on my back patio. It also happens to be where I do laundry. I am slowly adding succulents and other plants to create a respite away from my workspace and kitchen.
Spending time outdoors has radically improved my quality of life. I may live in the desert, but I relate to the words of Robert Louis Stevenson:
It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of the air, that emanation from the old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.
(Excerpted from Essays of Travel by Robert Louis Stevenson.)
What about you? How do you spend time outdoors?
In this episode of The Connecting Place, I share more about my own experience as well as the experience of others who have benefited from time spent outside.