In 2013 I spent two weeks thru-hiking all 210 miles of the John Muir Trail. The two-week journey helped me experience the outdoors in an entirely new way, and it added to the value I already placed on getting outside. The biggest change I noticed while I was out on the trail related to how early I could wake up in the morning, and I could suddenly do it with ease.
I started looking into why I was able to rise so early without struggle (thinking it probably just came down to consistently getting up early) and I uncovered some research that revealed the positive effects the outdoors can have on your stress levels and overall health.
1. Nature Provides Stress Relief By Resetting Our Internal Clock
The National Institutes of Health states, "Natural light synchronizes the internal body clock in the brain's hypothalamus with seasonal and daily time cues present in the environment. It's an important link to our natural world, telling us when to eat and sleep. The body clock is also critical for regulating levels of the hormone melatonin -- which increase before bedtime, making us feel sleepy, and decrease in the morning."
It takes about a week to see results, but the rhythms in our natural world, given the chance, will reset our clocks. The benefit is worth pursuing often because poor sleep schedules (affected by the artificial light at home) can lead to weight gain and obesity, stress, mood problems, and being more lethargic in the morning.
2. Nature Provides Stress Relief Through Scent
Going outside tends to help people relax, and this becomes apparent when looking at heart rates. In general, a person's heart rate will decrease when they're outside. While the cause isn't completely clear, it might be tied to the outdoor scents that have been associated with a reduction in stress.
For example, Lavender has a number of medicinal uses and indications. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, "A number of studies have reported that lavender essential oil may be beneficial in a variety of conditions, including insomnia, alopecia (hair loss), anxiety, stress, and postoperative pain." Other scents such as cut grass, jasmine, roses, and other flowers have also been proven to reduce stress.
3. Nature Provides Stress Relief With Sights of Trees
Trees, in particular have been studied for their stress-relieving properties. "Exercising in forests and simply sitting looking at the trees reduce blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline," according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.
The good news is that even if you can't get to a tree outside, you can get similar effects by simply looking at pictures of trees. So if you're feeling stressed but can't get outside to fully remedy the situation, take a quick look at this tree picture that our fan Kalia Womack submitted to our Share Your Adventure photo contest.
4. Nature Provides Stress Relief With Opportunities to Move
Lastly, trips outside almost always mean movement. Movement is great news for achieving lower levels of stress. Virtually any form of exercise acts a stress reliever. Physical activity will elevate your level of endorphins and help you achieve what's known as a "Runner's high," or that good feeling you get after going on a long run. Even if you aren't spurred into motion on your next trip outdoors, we have a feeling laying in a hammock works too.
No matter what you choose to do the next time you head outdoors, you can be certain that you're reducing your stress levels. Between the trees, scents, and beautiful natural light, you'll be quickly on your way to a state of complete relaxation. Don't sweat the small stuff holding you back from getting outdoors. Just get out there!