Granted, my childhood was a little unusual.
I was raised by two deeply Southern parents from Mississippi. In Southern California. My dad was in the rocket industry and my mom was an accountant by trade. My parents were avid outdoor kind of people and they made the most of our enviable years in California. We spent long hot days at the beach and starry cool nights up in the mountains camping. Every summer of my childhood, we packed up the tent and the campstove and spent a week and a half in July in Yosemite, hiking all the trails and floating down the frigid Merced River on our flimsy plastic pool floats. Those years I spent living on the West Coast made me both a mountain gal and a beach baby, and, as you do when you’re a kid, I figured this was how everyone grew up, with access to ancient redwood forests, sweeping ribbons of sandy beaches perched at the edge of the endless Pacific, and the taupe silhouette of the San Bernardino mountains forever on the horizon line.
As it turns out, that’s not the case for many of us. And it hasn’t been the case for me for lots of years now. I’ve lived in some beautiful places in those years since we left California, but mountain and beach access hasn’t been easy to come by, and particularly having access to both kinds of climes within a couple hours drive of each other.
As I’ve had to get more strategic in my outdooring adventures post-childhood, it’s made me appreciate more fully just how important being in those kinds of geographic features is. Louise Delagran, MA, MEd, writes, “Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality, according to scientists such as public health researchers Stamatakis and Mitchell.”1 She also cites a fascinating study in which surgery patients who had a view of the outdoors and trees tolerated pain better than other patients in the study who did not have that kind of view.
There’s a term for the kind of impact being out in nature makes on us and our physical and mental wellbeing. It’s called ecopsychology and the information and data around the connection of time spent in nature and our health continues to grow. A recent study by Mathew White of the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter showed that, in the 20,000 people involved in the study, those who spent at least two hours a week outdoors reported far higher levels of happiness, stress reduction, and an overall sense of vitality and wellbeing than those who did not spend that much time outdoors.2
And here’s some more good news: from my Southern California youth, I took outside time to mean a choice between time at the beach or time up in the mountains. And certainly, those kinds of picturesque vistas hold plenty of inspiration and charm. But as it turns out, two hours a week of any kind of outside time, even in your familiar local neighborhood park, can have the same benefits as 120 minutes on a crystal blue lake in the high country. Having researched this wellness/nature connection extensively, San Diego journalist Richard Louv writes, “Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.”3 Practically, that means if you can get outdoors for 17 minutes and a handful of seconds a day, you’ll hit that prime 2 hour mark each week.
What does that mean for you?
It means you don’t have to choose between being a mountain person or a beach person. You don’t have to choose between days at the lake or hiking in an ancient forest, waiting to have beneficial outdoor time until you can get to your favorite kind of clime. The benefits of simply being outdoors aren’t hinged on having access to Southern California beach-and-mountain-in-a-day kind of a thing. Instead, remembering to get out of the office, out of the house, out of the commute, and to spend time under the tree in your backyard or wandering the sidewalk in your neighborhood is just as important to your physical and mental health as that beach vacation once a year. Being in the great outdoors shouldn’t be something relegated to holidays or particular scenery. Build time in your schedule to be outside everyday. And while you’re there, notice the flora and fauna around you. Your stress levels will fall and your sense of contentment will heighten. It’s all free for the taking and will help keep your health at its prime.