With gray, early spring weather presiding over the landscape and prevailing news updates honed on social distancing and a state wide shelter-in-place order, I needed a mental boost now more than ever. Thankfully, nature has always been able to provide that for me. As I geared up to head out to Sylvan Solace Preserve for my next “hike for health’s sake” experience, I couldn’t help but focus on mental health. I laced up my boots and hit the trail to get in a workout and to see how getting outside would change my mood.
When I arrived at the preserve I took stock of my mood: slightly edgy, tense, and tired. I headed down the entry trail towards the heart of the preserve, pines on my right and hardwoods to my left. On this morning, no one else was at the preserve and I had the place to myself, save for the singing birds and the other less vocal creatures of the forest. Today I set my pace at a more relaxed stride than my furious power walk used at Bundy Hill last week. A comfortable walking pace of about 3.5 mph, it was a pace I felt could count as exercise but would also allow me to thoroughly enjoy my surroundings. When I arrived at the fork in the trail, I headed west towards the river. Already I could tell that the movement and increased blood flow were doing wonders for my mood. The sound of the wind in the trees, the spring birds and the soft brush of blowing plants was soothing and energizing at the same time.
I reached the river and could hear the sounds of flowing water, see the sparkling, playful surface as it danced along, crossing over rocks and logs and fish, moving ever onward. I paused my fitness tracker to give myself a few moments to just sit and enjoy the river. With a few deep and meditative breaths, I purposefully absorbed my surroundings. I started walking again, following the trail as it ran along the bank up above the river. Once the trail curved east into the woods and away from the river, the sounds of flowing water faded away, to be replaced by singing birds and wind rushing through treetops. At this point my muscles were feeling warm and fluid, my head was clear and I was really present in the moment. I continued working my way through the woods, splitting off the River Loop trail to head east along the Aspen Pathway towards the Meadow Lane trail.
Several times I paused to look at fungi, or to examine signs of animal presence, and then would move on again steadily, almost with an unconscious ebb and flow to my movements, until eventually I reached the trail head at the parking lot. I checked my fitness tracker and was pleased that even with my leisurely pace I had burned 155 calories, covered 1.3 miles, and logged 26 minutes and 28 seconds of active time. My mood had definitely improved, and I was feeling energized, peaceful and accomplished. Even though the sky was still gray, the experience had definitely enhanced my overall frame of mind, and had also warmed up my body and gotten my blood flowing.
With the outcome from my own experience in mind, I set out to back up my findings, and found a plethora of supporting material. Studies led by Stanford University found “quantifiable evidence that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression.” Findings also confirmed a positive correlation between time spent in nature and improved cognitive function and memory along with a “dampening effect on anxiety.” The man leading the charge with this Stanford University research is Gregory Bratman, a PhD candidate in environmental science. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Bratman discussed how time spent outdoors also decreases rumination. Rumination is anxiety inducing negative thought that focuses on negative aspects of oneself. Bratman says he hopes to further study the mechanisms of nature that produce these positive effects on human mental health. According to Harvard Health, a growing field of research into ecotherapy has revealed that spending even 20 to 30 minutes in nature can decrease stress, anxiety and depression levels, and can also lower blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol.
It seems safe to say that if you are feeling stressed, frustrated, drained or otherwise run down mentally, getting outdoors may be some of the best medicine you can find. There are many approaches to addressing mental health, just as there are many avenues to work on physical fitness but getting outdoors may just be the best of both worlds. Exercising in nature provides a valuable holistic opportunity to work the body and calm the mind and can be extremely beneficial for human health, even if you can only squeeze in 30 minutes at a time.
I also found it quite satisfying that in this time of distress, one of our most popular preserves could live up to its name and provide solace for a weary and tired soul in need of comfort.
Stanford University. “Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription: Nature.” Stanford News, Stanford University Communication, 9 Apr. 2016, news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/.
“Science Proves What You Suspected: Hiking’s Good for Your Mental Health.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 2 July 2015, www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-nature-mental-health-20150629-story.html.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Sour Mood Getting You down? Get Back to Nature.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature.