May 3, 2017

How long do you stay outdoors?

Civilization transformed the nomadic life to a more sedentary one, decreasing the time we spend outside. We sit and stare at our computers and work on our desks for at least eight hours a day. On weekends, we’re often preoccupied with tons of chores at home that had piled up throughout the week. Our time outdoors is mostly limited to our commute from one destination to another. For those living in urbanized cities, patches of greenery have become rare luxuries as wide open spaces are becoming smaller and smaller.

A few minutes spent in nature, stripped of any technological connection, is said to not only lower stress levels but also increase cognitive abilities. Cognitive psychologist David Strayer conducted a four-day experiment at the University of Utah to test his hypothesis that exposure to nature helps the brain’s prefrontal cortex—the part of our brain responsible for problem-solving, processing complex thoughts, and emotions—to rest. According to his journal Creativity in the Wild, four days of immersion in nature and the corresponding disconnection from multimedia and technology increase performance on creative and problem-solving tasks by a full 50 percent, as demonstrated among a test group of hikers.

With the constant updates on our caches of apps and the frequent buzzing of our devices due to notifications, our attention has become even more divided. And with this comes the inevitable fatigue. The Attention Restoration Theory, a study proposed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, suggests that being in nature helps regain our brain’s default cognitive power, as the brain is naturally stimulated to relax with the sight of nature. “Attention to these patterns is effortless, and they leave ample opportunity for thinking about other things,” Stephen stated in one of his journals.

The Japanese’ secret to long life and mental wellness is said to be their close affinity with nature. In 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries prescribed shinrin-yoku or forest bathing after it was discovered that trees give off organic compounds that boost a person’s immune system, providing everyone a natural way to fight illnesses and ailments. Further studies show that exposure to trees can increase natural killer cells in our bodies. More benefits include reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, improved mood, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, and increased energy level.

Wanting to escape to nature is our mind and body’s way of telling us that being on hyperdrive every waking minute of our lives is taking its toll on our body. So yes, book that hiking trip with friends and take time to stroll at a nearby park this weekend.


This story was originally published in Southern Living, April 2017.

TAGS: forest bathing health nature nolisoliph outdoors