I was recently in Moab, Utah on a family hiking and mountain-biking trip. The desert terrain is surreal: bizarre, unearthly spires, arches, mounds, bridges, and hoodoos carved from the sandstone through millennia of erosion by wind and water. To walk through this land is to be reminded of the immensity of the natural world, its tremendous beauty, and the almost-incomprehensible span of geological time required to create it. It is truly humbling: contemplating a small ant-hill by the side of the trail, in the middle of a vast wilderness, you can’t help but draw the comparison to our own works, and find them meager indeed by contrast to the majesty of the Colorado River snaking through sheer thousand-foot cliffs of red rock.
At the end of our trip, after a day of hiking through Arches National Park, we stopped at the information center, browsing for the usual postcards, keychains, and other tourist trinkets to remind us of this place. I always look for a book or two about the history, culture, and significance of a place I’ve visited, so I wandered over to the nearest shelves and started browsing. Within a few minutes I had found Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” an autobiographical account of Abbey’s time as a park ranger at Arches that was originally published in 1968 (you can buy it on Amazon, of course: http://amzn.to/2fCtPF8). I was drawn in by the immediacy of Abbey’s writing: his vivid descriptions and deep observations of the natural world reminded me of Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House” (http://amzn.to/2fEnfy3), and his passionate defense of the wilderness against man’s intrusions and “improvements” in the name of civilization moved me.
As I stood there, reading, I began to think about what we lose by being “civilized” and, like Huck Finn escaping Aunt Polly’s attempts at refinement, I longed to get back out on the trail and away from manners, small-talk, automobiles, the internet, and anything that stood between me and the immediate experience of nature.
I’m far from alone. The Japanese praise Shinrin-Yoku, or “forest bathing,” a practice developed in the 1980s as a way of using the natural world to boost overall health. Simply walking in a forest, focusing on your surroundings in a calm, relaxed manner, has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and increase focus and happiness. A recent article in The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/06/forest-bathing/532068/) shows that the practice is also beginning to take hold here in the U.S., as we seek alternative, healthful remedies beyond self-medicating to deal with our increasingly stressful lives.
While it’s not always possible to take several hours out of your day (or week, or month) to devote to a more formal “forest bathing” practice, it is possible to get outside more every day, reconnect with nature, and experience real benefit from your practice. I’ve found the following 4 steps helpful to integrate the out-of-doors into my life on a daily basis:
1. Just get outside
This means REALLY outside, where the fresh air and sunshine are, and not just away from your desk and to the break room, cafeteria, or library. It’s critical to be exposed to as much nature as you can get on a daily basis, preferably with a “forest” of trees dense enough that you feel surrounded by them and can’t see anything else – no buses, trains, cars, cityscapes, nada. Of course, this won’t always be possible depending on where your home or office is located – but it is possible to get outside of whatever building you find yourself in and breath (relatively) fresh air.
I like to combine my out-of-doors peregrinations with my breaks from immediate tasks or activities, preferably at least 5 or 10 minutes for every hour spent staring at a computer screen or sitting at a desk. For a longer break, use your lunch hour or the time immediately before or after work, when you can fold in your outside time to your commuting schedule.
2. Make sure you get some sun
Sunlight is key to both mental and physical health. SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a well-documented disorder that typically affects sufferers starting in the fall and continuing on into the winter (http://mayocl.in/2glAzer), although it is less common to have onset of symptoms in the spring and summer. Phototherapy (exposure to light with the frequency of daylight) is frequently prescribed if it is not possible to get enough exposure to natural light (e.g., if you live in far northern climes or are forced to be stuck inside for most of the day).
In addition, Vitamin D, a critical supplement necessary for the maintenance of calcium and phosphorous in your body, as well as for a healthy immune system (http://mayocl.in/2wXNyGk) is produced by a reaction of the body to rays of Ultraviolet-B light from the sun. Government nutritional guidelines recommend 200 to 600 International Units (IUs) of Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), although many nutritionists recommend up to 2,000 IUs per day. The good news is that, during the summer months when the sun is high enough to allow UV-B rays to get to you on the surface of the earth, about 10 minutes of exposure for a fair-skinned person wearing no sunblock and typical sunbathing clothes (shorts and a tank top for women) is enough to allow your body to generate 10,000 IUs of Vitamin D3 (http://bit.ly/2gHyAhH); darker-skinned people may need up to 20 minutes, but it’s still a pretty short time. During the winter, longer exposure alone won’t do the trick, since the sun isn’t high enough in the sky, but a Vitamin D3 supplement does the trick.
3. Break up your day with periodic retreats outside; aim for at least 30 minutes if you can, but any amount is better than nothing
As you know by now, sitting is the new smoking: our sedentary, office-based lifestyle is slowly killing us (Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, who coined the term, says we are literally “sitting ourselves to death” – http://bit.ly/2zrooSd). Even if you are desk-bound most of the day, staring at a screen of one kind or another, a simple solution is just to GET UP AND GET OUT once an hour for about 5 to 10 minutes. There’s even an app that will help remind you to take a break, called “Stand Up!” on the app store (http://apple.co/2yNGDEq). Doing so will help you restore your energy, focus, and mood.
4. Perform some vigorous “body resetting” activity while you’re out there
Finally, don’t just get up, go outside, and sit down again in a forest or on a bench, soaking up the rays – MOVE AROUND. Movement is critical to stimulating the nervous system, firing muscles that have lain dormant while you’ve been sitting, and even increasing blood flow to the brain (if vigorous enough). Our bodies evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to move: to sprint in pursuit of tonight’s dinner, to lift heavy objects, to climb trees and rocks – NOT to sit in an office chair for 9 or 10 hours a day. Again, Dr. Levine of the May Clinic, says “health gets better with movement, productivity gets better, and people enjoy their jobs – and lives – more.” (http://mayocl.in/2gnOAsg). So get out, move around, and reset your body to where it wants to be – in motion.
You’ve spent enough time staring at this screen: STOP and get outside NOW!