Get a Dose of Nature

You likely already do things to help cut down on daily stress. Perhaps you meditate for a few minutes each day; practice self-care rituals; or choose to eat a well-balanced diet that promotes sustained energy and mental clarity. But have you ever considered what spending time outdoors can do for you?

Think about it; outdoor-living was the only option for our ancestors. Over time, human brains formed an innate connection with nature, one that can be difficult to uphold with indoor-based living. This relatively recent change to living and working indoors comes with apparent advantages, i.e.,  protection from harsh weather, but our brains never abandoned the instinctual desire to connect with nature.

This desire to spend time outside can be demonstrated by the mental and physical health benefits that occur when we get in touch with nature. Numerous studies have observed increases in feelings of happiness, well-being, and creativity. Other studies have reported decreased rumination (repetitive thought that focuses on negative aspects of oneself) and increased social behavior. More recently, researchers have demonstrated that the primary stress hormone, cortisol, can be influenced by taking nature breaks.

Cortisol clarification

Having some cortisol in your system is healthy. We usually experience a spike in the morning that helps us start the day and feel motivated to get things accomplished. Cortisol levels then taper off until the next morning. Cortisol may be released in higher amounts during times of prolonged physical or psychological stress. This cortisol response served our ancestors well when threats to physical safety were abundant; it helped stimulate appetite to meet additional nutrient and energy requirements to fight or flee from danger.

Today, psychological stress is much more pervasive, but the coinciding cortisol release remains the same. Physical stressors help you make use of your body’s cortisol response. But psychological stressors often experienced as anxiety, do not. This can cause cortisol to accumulate in the blood, which is where issues arise. Long-term cortisol elevation has been associated with lowered immune function and bone density and increased blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease risk, and BMI. Research also suggests a link with increased appetite and hunger, especially for high-fat and sugary foods. Stress management techniques like spending time outdoors can help!

Control cortisol nature-ally

Managing your cortisol levels is all about managing the life stressors you can control. If you’re psychologically stressed, find a healthy way to cope. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but exercise is one of the best places to start! If you need another idea to get started, consider spending more time outside or exercising outside. Findings published in Frontiers in Psychology from researchers at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability suggest that spending time outdoors can reduce cortisol levels. Study participants who partook in “nature experiences” saw an average 21% per hour decrease in cortisol beyond that of the body’s natural drop. Cortisol levels dropped most rapidly between 20-30 minutes outdoors but continued decreasing at a slower rate thereafter.

As the weather warms this spring, plan regular nature experiences into your routine to help relieve stress. Spend time anywhere outdoors that, in your opinion, has enough natural elements to feel like interaction with nature. You can enhance the stress-reducing impact of your nature breaks by including aerobic exercise, like walking, jogging, running, or yoga. Try taking outdoor walks during your lunch breaks, signing-up to walk or run a 5k, planning family outings to state parks, or exploring a new-to-you part of town this weekend. How will you get active outdoors?

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