First of all, it’s important that I make you aware that for many years I was not an “outdoor” person. I got bored on walks and needed music when running outdoors. I never hiked and I just wasn’t all that interested in nature. I liked a nice view as much as the next person but I wasn’t willing to go walk a few miles to see it. With that context in mind – over the last few years, maybe it’s just my maturing years, I love getting outdoors. I’m lucky enough to have lived close to the coast my entire life and the North of England has many beautiful beaches, forests, national parks and lakes. There is no shortage of great walks. But through laziness and ignorance I missed out on so much. I’m the owner of a dog these days so I don’t have a choice in the matter. One of my favourite things is to go for a nice scenic walk with my partner and the dog. It’s a great way to spend a day. I love my food so I always indulge in something tasty (sometimes healthy) afterwards – or maybe a celebratory pint of beer because I earned it.
It’s funny though because often when we’re busy or struggling with something the first thought is to spend more time indoors – more time at the office, more time on the computer or more time in front of the TV to unwind after a long day. Lockdowns certainly have exacerbated this problem with a large increase in home working, less travel and less places to do other activities. I think this has oddly reminded people that there’s perhaps more to where you live than the amenities per se or a bustling city centre location. People have been reminded that when you’re stuck in the house – a garden or a local park is a real plus.
Nature and the outdoors has a lot of positive benefits. Recent research has suggested that even a plant in a room can have a big impact on stress and anxiety levels. Seeing plants can reduce your stress and anxiety. There are also further benefits identified in recent research from helping children diagnosed with ADHD being able to pay better attention later. In one study 95% of those interviewed said that their mood had improved after spending time outside. It’s good for your health, your mood and your attention. A lot of famous people from history have realised the benefits of a daily walk, even for the creative benefits – Stephen King walks every day. Wordsworth walked miles every day. Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aristotle, Soren Kierkegaard and Beethoven are well known fans of a daily walk. There’s also a lot more going on when you’re outdoors for your senses – the sound of waves, of birds, the wind, the colours on display. It’s good for thinking and the lack of a phone signal in many hiking locations means it’s also great to connect to others without distractions. Humans are meant to be outdoors – we evolved for being outdoors. I like to workout indoors but sometimes it might be worth forgetting about the stationary bike, rowing machine or treadmill and doing the same outdoors instead. The molecular biologist Dr. John Medina believes that humans used to walk around 10 miles per day in hunter gatherer societies and our brains evolved in this environment – so our brain today still operates at it’s best with this regular exercise. In effect exercise improves cognition. We don’t have to walk 10 miles a day but you can see by the large increase in demand for standing desks and even treadmill desks that many in business recognise that sitting hunched over in a chair all day may not be the most optimal way to work. You don’t need to get a standing desk but regular standing and walking breaks from your desk and work mixed with regular exercise may boost your performance. Exercise mixed with the benefits of nature may improve your cognition, decrease your stress and anxiety, improve your attention and mood. As humans we’ve removed ourselves from a lot of the dangers of the natural world when we started building towns and cities and industrialisation created more urban environments rather than our more rural agricultural pasts. But we also removed ourselves from the benefits too and in doing so our relationship to and within nature and our planet. It’s hard to feel so important when you look around in nature and see different species or the rocks and cliffs that have been weathered and shaped over thousands of even millions of years.
If you’re stuck with a problem or feeling stressed – maybe the best thing you can do is take a step back, put everything down and go for a walk.