Is there anything more relaxing than a sunny day spent digging your toes into the sand and watching the waves crash against the shore? Some may even call it healing. Or how about the pure bliss of a weekend away in the mountains? Every now and then, we all want a change of scenery. Your parents may have even told you an old adage about the regenerative powers of a walk in the winter weather, how a sunny day might brighten your mood, or the classic ‘you just need some fresh air.’ But is there any truth to all of this or are we onto something?

What are the benefits of the outdoors in general?

If you enjoy outdoor activities such as gardening, fishing, golfing, or even birdwatching, you may already know the feeling of a great day spent outdoors. You may have even found yourself in a better mood just by sitting outside on your patio. I enjoy the occasional neighborhood stroll myself.

Ecotherapy is a newer scientific field that looks into the link between nature and improvements in some mental health conditions. Research suggests that spending time in nature can help abate loops of negative thoughts, reduce cortisol levels, and lower blood pressure. Whenever you’re feeling more stressed than usual, it really can help to go for a run on a trail rather than resorting to the gym. 

In fact, taking your exercise outdoors can even improve your physical wellbeing. Studies show that limited sun exposure, such as on a short walk, can boost vitamin D levels. With sufficient vitamin D, we may have less risk of depression, osteoporosis, stroke, heart attacks, or cancer. Just be sure to slather on plenty of sunscreen if you’ll be spending time outdoors (even if it’s cloudy). Another study on indoor versus outdoor activity found that children were twice as active while outside. 

Richard Ryan, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Rochester, suggests that the best way to get a boost in energy isn’t reaching for a ginger shot or cappuccino. ‘Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature,’ he says. Studies have also pointed to a remarkable resilience in those who have more energy. Perhaps it’s time to gather your friends and start a hiking club?

Can natural landscapes reduce our stress?

When we’re stressed, it can be hard to alleviate that feeling — especially when the stressors in our lives are unavoidable. Sometimes, it might seem that the only way to relieve your stress is to get away. But is it? 

One study, among others, suggests this may be true. Researchers recruited visitors of three different parks — one natural setting, another semi-natural, and the third, urban — to measure their stress response before and after their experience. They concluded that nature indeed had ‘a beneficial effect on reducing levels of stress and that the greater the level of nature the more pronounced the potential benefit is.’ 

What does this mean? Smelling some flowers outside your apartment might not cut it. While bringing nature into your home can be beneficial, it may not bring you a significant reduction in stress — for that, you’ll have to leave Netflix behind. 

Gardening can be an idyllic escape from the drudgery of work indoors. A study looking into the benefits of gardening on wellbeing found that it could be promoted as a preventive health measure. In fact, post-gardening, people felt healthier and more energized, and reported fewer depressive feelings and less fatigue.

What are the benefits of mountainous landscapes?

If you live in a warmer area, the relentless sun can make you feel tired and sluggish. Could a trip to a cabin solve all your problems? Not quite, but if you’re trying to manage your weight, a trip to the mountains might do you some good.

It turns out that weight loss and improved body composition may be spurred by higher altitudes. One study showed that exercising in an environment with reduced oxygen levels, or hypoxic conditioning, may benefit those looking to lose weight or stay fit. It’s even been lauded as a potential mode of therapy for injured athletes. Another study found that higher altitudes may also curb appetite and increase energy levels. There are, of course, limitations and many factors that still need to be understood. Either way, an escape to the mountains could be a great way to enjoy outdoor activities as a form of exercise or to kickstart healthier habits.

My alma mater, Northern Arizona University, hosts athletes all year with one common goal: to take advantage of high-altitude training to improve their performance. Research has shown this isn’t necessarily true, though high-altitude training might enhance an athlete’s performance in some ways. Based on current studies, training at higher altitudes won’t benefit us nonathletes as much.

What are the benefits of forests?

Shinrin-yoku, or what translates to ‘forest bathing’ in English, is the traditional Japanese practice of soaking in the forest’s sounds and smells and letting nature wash over you. Sounds silly? It’s not — actually, one physiological study found that forest environments lowered cortisol levels (the fight-or-flight hormone), heart rate, and blood pressure in those who practiced shinrin-yoku. Another psychological study saw hostility and depression markers decrease while energy increased. Researchers also agreed forests could be ‘viewed as therapeutic landscapes.’Basically, nature therapy has some real merit. 

Natural environments such as forests can also reduce a phenomenon known as directed attention fatigue (DAF), which, if you’ve ever multitasked, you’ll be familiar with — it’s when our ability to select what we want to focus on is impaired. Stephen and Rachel Kaplan studied DAF and found that exposure to nature could alleviate its effects. 

If you’ve read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, you might remember the term nature-deficit disorder, a non-clinical term that describes the effects of a generation living indoors. In studying young adults at a wilderness camp, researchers noted the holistic health benefits of the environment and an overall improvement in campers’ wellness. These studies suggest that activity outside — any activity — could be of great satisfaction to you.

We know green spaces are beneficial for holistic health, but what about blue spaces?

What are the benefits of living by the sea?

Having spent summers by the beach as a child, I already suspected that there were numerous benefits to being by the ocean. Many people say that they feel more relaxed at the beach, or that they feel serene after a salty swim. 

One study that examined the ties between health and location discovered that those living closer to the sea were healthier than those living inland. Another study found that those living close to the coast, within a kilometer or so, were less likely to struggle with depression or anxiety than their landlocked counterparts — bringing new meaning to the saying ‘there must be something in the water.’ Recreation involving the ocean such as scuba diving or other beach activities can improve psychological wellbeing after just one hour, according to one study. If you were looking for an excuse to head to the beach, this is it.

Blue spaces, or bodies of water including seas, rivers, and lakes, are positively associated with good health, particularly mental health and wellbeing, and living near them can encourage us to lead more physically active lives. Living near water is also associated with lower mortality rates. It’s also suggested that simply living near natural spaces, rather than urban, can promote better health. Have you ever felt at ease by the water? 

So, how can a change of scenery improve our wellbeing?

Nature has numerous benefits for our health, no matter what landscape we call home — but what about seeing something different? Trying something new and exposing yourself to diverse experiences is scientifically proven to boost your happiness. I know what you’re thinking — I can’t even leave my home! So how do we do this?

Based on their findings, Catherine Hartley, assistant professor at New York University, says ‘Our results suggest that people feel happier when they have more variety in their daily routines — when they go to novel places and have a wider array of experiences.’

While we can’t experience the joys of travel right now, we can enjoy nature in our own backyards. Even just changing up your normal walking route, drive to work, or go-to coffee shop can uncover surprises nearby. Taking a day trip by car is another great way to see something new. Over the weekend, you could take your family to a hiking trail you’ve never been to (if it’s safe to do so — and remember water!) or plan out a new garden. If you aren’t taking advantage of the natural spaces in your area, then you’re probably missing some amazing experiences right under your nose. 

Our relationship with nature, and how that might impact our mind and body, is a complex topic. Certainly, nature can play a large role in improving our holistic health, but it’s also important to take charge of your health journey. Forming and combining healthy habits, nourishing yourself and loved ones, and incorporating new practices such as ecotherapy will facilitate a healthy mind and body — and that’s what we strive for at Holisticly.