This summer I toured around the Rocky Mountains with my girlfriend and her daughter, showing them many of the remarkable places and doing many of the remarkable things in the outdoors (like crapping in a hole) that I’ve been extremely privileged to experience. In the past I have reaped many health rewards from spending a lot of time in the outdoors (I’ve experienced some health detriments as well, from overdoing it with physical exertion and underdoing it on food).
I think the near-miraculous health benefits I have experienced from spending a lot of time outdoors in the past was one of the major catalysts for my interest in health. The only problem was that the quantity of time spent outdoors to achieve that effect was extreme – not something any “normal” person could do and still have a normal life, job, and that kinda thing. And it unfortunately isn’t something that, once you’ve done it, the benefits last. In my experience, the benefits of spending a lot of time outdoors are turned off and on almost as quickly as a light switch. As soon as you become housebound and 90% sedentary, watching 80′s movies about the outdoors instead of living them, any problems you had prior come trotting right back in.
Still, I continue to think about it, because it truly is interesting. I always find living a truly outdoor life to be quite a panacea, especially for what have been my most troubling health problems since my teens – back pain and exercise-induced asthma. Below are what I think are the top 10 most likely mechanisms to the better health that I, and many others, report from spending time outdoors. You can actually see many popular health philosophies woven into this list. Bonus points for proper identification of the images used in this post, all of which are movies that were either made or excessively watched by me during the 1980′s (in lieu of spending time outdoors)…
While you don’t necessarily have to be exercising when you are outdoors, most do. Unless you are sunbathing, it’s natural to move around when you are outdoors, and do so almost continuously. Nature doesn’t provide a whole lot of comfortable chairs either. Walking for hours and exploring an area comes quite natural in the outdoors, unlike doing it on a treadmill where your body and mind cringe against the mundane task. The net result is that you end up naturally getting what is in today’s world, an unheard of quantity of moderate physical activity. And I think there is something uniquely therapeutic about this aside from the postural benefits of spending more time in an upright position, which we’ll discuss later in the list.
Spend a day or two in the outdoors and you might find it to be really mentally stressful. It’s an unfamiliar place with bugs, lightning, darkness, strange sounds, dangerous cliffs, and what otherwise may seem like dangers. You might also start to get anxious about all the work you are falling behind on, what the stock market is doing, and that kind of stuff. But spend a lot of time in the outdoors in general, as a way of life, and spending time outdoors will become the least mentally stressful thing you do. It’s a monstrous reprieve from the sort of chronic, nagging, background mental stress that has become the modern, disease-provoking way of life.
3) Clean Water
One of my personal favorite aspects of outdoor life in the Rocky Mountains in particular (although I’ve had plenty of good stuff in the Appalachians and elsewhere), is the water. It’s amazing. Ice cold, pure taste, picked straight out of a well-oxygenated moving stream – typically within a couple miles of the stream’s headwaters. No chlorine, fluoride, or other thyroid-destroying halide class element. I never filter my water or treat it with iodine either, but I do strive to drink from quality sources that haven’t been tainted by manmade chemicals, weird gunk from mines, or excessive amounts of cow poop in grazing areas. The water also contains live bacteria, and the whole outdoor experience is certainly less sterile than modern life, argued by many to have benefits as well. I also like to think of the water, coursing through the rocks, as being rich in minerals like the silty glacier water of the famed Hunza valley, although I have no idea if this is true.
Watching television, youtube videos, and similar activities that have only recently become a fixture of human life, supposedly send the brain into a low alpha wave state – often more sedated and inactive than brain activity during sleep. The brain is an incredibly active organ metabolically-speaking, eating up glucose at a high rate when it is being used actively. Although activities like writing and verbal communication probably trigger more activity, being outdoors and taking in a wide variety of new sights and smells keeps the brain constantly active, and never babysat unless, perhaps, you end up staring into a campfire for many hours (which I suspect is very biologically similar to staring at a glowing box).
5) Less Screen Time
Along the same lines, living an outdoor life really cuts back on screen time. I find screens, regardless of whether they are televisions, video games, smart phones, or computers, create tremendous interference with our natural cues for movement – not just for the purpose of getting some blood pumping, but for good posture and proper mechanical function. The phrase “screen time” is becoming ever more popular in obesity literature because a lot of it is a well-known “risk factor” for obesity and seemingly-related conditions.
Humans probably get less sun exposure than any other creature. Getting lots of natural sunlight is highly therapeutic – promoting natural vitamin D synthesis and protecting against just about every known form of cancer except skin cancer. Many people hardly see the light of day, stuck in offices all day during daylight hours. Unless you’re like part Leprechaun or something, with the skin tone of Carrot Top, you can probably gauge whether or not you get enough outdoor time by whether or not you get sunburned when you spend a day outside. I have reached that point many times in many locales, although I’m far from it at the moment. This afternoon’s adventure at Sand Dunes National Park should help though.
Loud and unpleasant noise triggers cortisol release, especially if you are not used to it. In fact, as I read in Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, travelers to New York City actually have an exponentially higher risk of having a heart attack while visiting the city, in part because of the constant noise and commotion. The outdoors is generally very quiet, calm, and serene – often deafeningly so in alpine and desert regions. And the sounds that you do hear are not like manmade sounds such as sirens, alarms, car horns, and engines – but sounds that are naturally recognized as relaxing. Things like rivers, waterfalls, birds chirping, and ocean waves are all recognized as very soothing and de-stressing. I suspect the sounds of the outdoors, at least in a general sense, have much to do with the cumulative anti-stress, pro-health effects of being outside a lot.
The actual activity of sitting is thought to be more of a health detriment than lack of exercise – or perhaps even be the leading reason why being sedentary is associated with higher rates of degenerative disease. In other words, you may not even have to “exercise” to get the benefits of exercise, but just get off your ass. The amount of time I spend sitting seems to have a direct relationship with my level of back pain and the injury-proneness of my lower spine. If I spend enough time outdoors these issues almost completely vanish, but I think much of this has to do with the fact that I rarely sit when spending time outdoors. If I do, logs, rocks, and other non-comfy chairs assure that I don’t do it for very long at one time. Sitting is boring and uncomfortable if there is no screen in front of you to stifle your discomfort and restlessness.
Of all the things I mentioned, I’m most interested in earthing/grounding, or receiving more of the earth’s magnetism by being in contact with it. I’m most interested in it because earthing is known to decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (thought of as being more of the “stress” side of your nervous system), and because I don’t get many respiratory benefits unless I also SLEEP OUTDOORS in close contact with the ground (only a thin air-mattress separates us). It’s true, and I have tested this at great length. I can do the same hike, be outside all day, and not receive the same benefit to my breathing if I come home and sleep in a bed. Many assume that materials in my home, my bed, etc. are more causal of the asthma, but I have lived in over 20 places in the last 20 years, and where I live makes no difference. Only spending the night outdoors does the trick –basically keeping either my feet or full body in almost direct contact with the earth 24 hours per day. Most science-minded people reject the idea of earthing, because it sounds too hokey or new agey, but I can’t help but give it a chance because of my real-life experiences with it. Studies on earthing have been very promising.
Artificial light, especially late at night shining right into your frickin’ eyes, is a modern invention and one that a handful of people have challenged as being causal of many modern ailments. While I wouldn’t go to the extent that author T.S. Wiley has in terms of her witch hunt on the light bulb, anything that has something to do with what happens at night (because of the huge differences I notice when it comes to sleeping outdoors as opposed to indoors with the other variables equal), I take seriously. When you are outdoors your eyes and skin are exposed to the natural changes in light intensity and solar angle throughout the day, ending with a slow fade out into darkness that prepares the nervous system for sleep. I suspect the body can time its daily rhythms much better with this natural light cycle (and also lunar cycle, as moonlight has a huge impact on us physiologically when you are out there in it), get better and fuller hormonal secretions when sleeping in complete darkness that comes at a predictable time with a slow, fading, sunset warning, and in turn reap health benefits from it.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on spending time outdoors and the potential mechanisms for why it may yield health benefits. Anyone else have anything interesting to add or experiences to report?
Bonus #11 – Pooping outside. It’s thought that the squatting posture, with butt below the knees, is the natural posture for having bowel movements, and modern Western-style toilets cause more straining and issues with having perfect poops.