Being outdoors: Why it matters to your health.

Enjoying the relaxing and reflective moments being in wilderness
Average read time 3 min

When I was a kid my parents would often tell my brother and me to “go outside and play”. I think this was true for all of my friends. We spent very little time indoors. It wasn’t what we were doing that was so important, but that it was being outdoors. Reflecting back and looking at the way many Americans spend their days, I think we have minimized our contact with nature and it’s killing us.

Being in natural environments is good for your health

A college professor told me that backpacking was the most important class that we would take. As a Physical Education/Exercise Science major I thought “most important”? But he was right. Besides improving my knowledge about being safe and healthy in the backcountry, the class gave me a deeper appreciation for being with nature.

Purple Trillium in Spring in the Catskills
Purple Trillium in Spring in the Catskills Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking

Being active in the natural environment is good for your health. Whether it a simple walk in a park or a multi-day backpacking trip being active in the outdoors will improve your well-being.

The famed writer and conservationist John Burroughs knew it.

“You discover with a feeling of surprise that the great thing is the earth itself…”

He also wrote :

“Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance.”

In the past, going to nature was prescribed for various forms of illness. Spending time in and near the mountains or springs was common for healing.

Again Burroughs knew this:

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

Today, outdoor recreation experiences are being used by many organizations to improve health and productivity. Corporations use it for team-building. Drug rehabilitation programs use it as part of a healthy treatment approach to recovery. Summer camp and adventure programs for youth and adults are common.

A guided group of youth on Algonquin Peak
A guided group of youth on Algonquin Peak in the Adirondacks Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking

Instead of incarcerating youth they are going to “wilderness” camps to find themselves through structured outdoor challenge experiences. Guide services have even got on the health kick by offering guided experiences with yoga.

Being outdoors reduces stress and improves mental health.

Being connected with nature helps us reduce stress by promoting feelings of peace. We are able to escape the fast-pace of daily life. This escape provides us a sense of freedom. It allows us to connect with something larger than our own self, promoting oneness and spiritual growth.

Sunrise on Giant Ledge Catskills
Sunrise on Giant Ledge Catskills Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking

Finally, we engage a sensory benefit which is dampened by living and working indoors. We experience natural light, fresh air, visual and aromatic stimulation which also promotes well-being.

Regarding a connection with nature, William Wordsworth says it well.

“A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.”

It’s also good for your fitness

Certainly, exercise and physical activity can improve a person’s health and longevity. However, when done outdoors the impact of this will be magnified. Additionally, when done in groups, the impact is even clearer as it can improve commitment and adherence to the activity. Hiking and backpacking are a form of exercise which have a multitude of health-promoting outcomes. Here are a few:

  • Improve aerobic fitness and strength
  • Improve balance
  • Aid in weight control
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Helps with diabetes

Clearly, we have much to gain by getting back outdoors it will give more than you expect.

John Muir seems right on target:

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

The next time you plan a vacation, make it an active one. Don’t settle for one that simply keeps you indoors. Maybe step away from the gym once in a while and work on your fitness in the wilderness. People who spend time in nature say that it improves their ability to work in everyday life. They also report improving fitness, mental health, and overall well-being. If you are already doing things outdoors, keep it up! If not, try “getting outside yourself”, I think you’ll be happier for it.