For Peace of Mind, Head Outside

For Peace of Mind, Head Outside

Published by Brion O'Connor

With few exceptions, the COVID-19 pandemic has weighed heavily on our heads and our hearts. Even the terms of the very precautions meant to protect us – things like “lockdown” and “quarantine” have negative connotations. The pervasiveness on the potentially fatal virus has resulted in a new and real condition, often referred to as “coronavirus fatigue.” We're simply tapped, weary of the threat of an invisible enemy and the vigilance required to keep it at bay.

In my own small house, with five grown adults – two “seniors,” ages 62 and 57 (myself included), and three young adults 23 and younger – things have transitioned from “cozy” to “confinement” in the past four months. We expected that. My wife is a healthcare worker. My brother is a surgeon. We were well aware that this pandemic was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Our first order of business was to schedule weekly sit-downs, where everyone could share their thoughts and frustrations.

The second was to get outside. Often. Numerous studies have shown that getting out of the house, and into nature, has myriad mental, emotional, and physical benefits. During a global pandemic, it's even more crucial. At Kulkea, we're big believers in the mind-body connection, but that's too much ground to cover in a single post. So, for now, we'll take a closer look at the mental and emotional benefits, and address the physical aspects next time around.

Evolving research indicates that the coronavirus thrives in confined spaces, especially when people aren't adhering to precautions such as adequate social distancing and wearing a mask. Conversely, outdoor activities fall into the “low risk” category in terms of transmission of the virus. With everyone suffering from “cabin fever” to some degree, more and more people are heading outside, which means local parks, hiking or mountain biking routes, rail trails, and the like are bound to be more crowded. Don't fret.

Whether you're hiking, walking, running or cycling, don't worry about quickly passing someone. Current data suggests that personal encounters of more than 15 minutes are far riskier than passing someone on a trail. However, keep your mask handy, and maintain a distance of six feet from others whenever possible.

Also, outdoor activities are particularly low risk if you stay with members from your household. There's an undeniable “social” aspect to getting outdoors for many of us, and camaraderie is critical for our well-being. Still, if you're connecting with friends or family from outside your house, that's a higher risk gathering, and proper precautions are recommended.

Regarding specific mental benefits, being outside can help relieve many issues, including anxiety, stress, and depression. According to a recent report by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times, emerging studies by researchers from Iowa State University, Trinity College Dublin, and other institutions “found a consistent pattern of more exercise correlating to better cheer and vice versa.”

“In particular, people who once had been active but rarely exercised now were significantly more likely to feel depressed, anxious, lonely and otherwise worried and dour than people who had continued to work out for at least 150 minutes a week,” wrote Reynolds. “The effects were most striking among the people in full quarantine, few of whom had maintained their prior exercise routines and most of whom reported feeling sad, depressed and solitary now.”

That shouldn't come as a surprise. Numerous peer-reviewed studies have proven that nature has a positive effect on mental health, revealing a strong connection between getting outside and reduced negative emotions, including anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic illnesses like irritability, insomnia, and tension headaches. In short, what you experience in nature can improve your mood.

For example, justifiable fears surrounding the pandemic, and potential (or actual) job loss, can lead to a substantial amount of stress. That can trigger a Domino Effect that affects your sleep, which leaves you tired (“mental fatigue”) and less prepared to deal with those fears. It's a vicious cycle. Getting outside won't cure the pandemic or protect your job, but it can put you in a better frame of mind.

“These are particularly stressful times,” Cillian McDowell of Trinity College Dublin told the New York Times. “This study suggests that maintaining and ideally increasing our current levels of activity” – while adhering to public health restrictions – “is an effective way to manage this stress.”

Or as Jacob Meyer, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State, told the Times: “In the same stressful situation, people who maintained their normal physical activity experienced less symptoms of depression and anxiety, across the board” than people who were less active.

Meyers added that exercise and getting outside give people some sense of control, which is an enormous benefit during uncertain times. Another study showed a decrease in the heart rates and levels of cortisol – a hormone often used as a stress marker – of participants who spent time in the woods compared to those in the city.

Even if you're still working, or taking classes, playing in nature helps boost your ability to focus. According to the Harvard Health Letter, a 2008 study found that children with ADHD scored higher on concentration after a walk through a park than after a walk through a residential neighborhood or downtown area. The one caveat, said Harvard, is that the study concentrated on children, not adults, but suggested that with outdoor activity, “the greener the better.”

Spending significant time outdoors also nurtures creativity, which can help in all aspects of your life, such as problem solving in relationships, family issues, or work scenarios.

Finally, you'll simply be happier if you spend time outside. Light tends to elevate people's mood, and there's no better place to find copious amounts of natural light than the great outdoors. Again referring to the Harvard Health Letter, “physical activity has been shown to relax and cheer people up, so if being outside replaces inactive pursuits with active ones, it might also mean more smiles and laughter.”

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