Before the pandemic hit, I logged all of my workouts between the confines of four walls. Cue lockdown in March of 2020 and I found myself clinging to any sense of sanity as I pushed my newborn around the neighborhood multiple times a day.
I will never forget the day I found myself mesmerized by the beauty of thousands of vibrant green leaves rustling in the wind — on a tree that I had passed every single day for years without a second glance.
While gym have reopened (and the fog of new motherhood has lifted), I continue to make walking outdoors something I do on a daily basis. I realized how great I felt after getting outside and moving — and how much my mental health benefited from making it a habit.
According to Brittany Becker, a licensed mental health counselor and director at The Dorm, a treatment community for young adults in New York City and Washington, D.C., I am not alone.
“Being forced to stay home has caused an increase in anxiety, depression, loneliness, disordered eating patterns, substance use and disruption to daily physical health routines. One common theme shared by our clients was that not changing their daily scenery invited unwanted feelings of burnout," Becker told TODAY. "We’ve seen a need to create routines that involve getting outside the home safely in order to boost our mental health. During the pandemic, many people experienced a positive impact on their mental health and creativity when they got outside more, and this ultimately helped them develop healthier daily rituals that will remain in people’s routines for the long term.”
So what is it exactly about being outside that feels so good?
“Being in nature can reduce our cortisol levels and de-stimulate our sympathetic nervous system, helping us to feel less under threat and less anxious,” said Lee Chambers, environmental psychologist and well-being consultant based in the United Kingdom. “Natural light elevates our serotonin levels and our mood and gives us a feeling of spaciousness and awe. Being outside is a full sensory experience, as the wind blows on our cheeks, light shines into our eyes, our feet hit the ground and the sounds of nature echo through our ears. The connectedness also helps us to feel like we are not going through this alone. Being surrounded by nature is therapeutic and has been shown to (have a) positive impact on those with mild and moderate depression.”
And as we emerge from the pandemic, which afforded many of us the time and flexibility to get outdoors, experts hope that turning to nature for recreation and refuge becomes a permanent change.
What is “eco-therapy”?
Even without a pandemic looming over us, using nature as a form of therapy is an effective tool for boosting our mental and physical health.
“Eco-therapy is the idea that as humans, we are deeply connected to the world around us, and have an affinity for the natural environments we evolved in,” said Chambers. “(It) gives us an opportunity to explore our relationship with nature and connect to nature in a way that positively impacts our mental health.”
Studies have shown as little as 20 minutes of nature exposure can have an impact on both mental and physical well-being.
What would a prescription for nature look like?
“Nature prescriptions are becoming more popular," said Chambers. "They are usually a recommendation for patients to engage in a local natural environment, such as wildlife centers, parks and green spaces. ... Studies have shown as little as 20 minutes of nature exposure can have an impact on both mental and physical well-being when consistently practiced.”
What "eco-therapy" may look like for you
How much time do we need to spend in nature to reap the benefits? The answer isn’t one-size-fits-all.
“While one person may benefit greatly from a brief walk to the local coffee shop or market, someone else may need a day trip outside of the city they live in to the nearest body of water or hiking trail,” said Becker. “Being out in nature is defined very differently from one person to the next, and for many people even being indoors with windows that allow for a lot of natural light can fulfill one's need for nature. Any activity that can engage your five senses in whatever you define or imagine nature to be can count as being in nature and have great impacts on a person.”
How you spend your time outdoors to reap the benefits is also unique to each individual.
“The best outdoor activities are the ones that you gain enjoyment and relaxation from. Take a moment to reflect on what nature activities resonate with you,” said Chambers. “Some of the more intense activities such as outdoor sports, swimming and trail running, really push our cardiovascular health forward while garnering some of the benefits of the great outdoors. Slower activities such as gardening, walking and nature yoga provide significant psychological benefits while often being pro-social and getting our heart rate up. Even creative activities such as drawing and journaling, when done outdoors, can give us both the benefits of the activity and a sense of connectedness that is so important to how we feel.”
Start with 20 minutes a day
“It can seem like a big undertaking, but it starts with the small things. Remember, you can gain real benefits (with) just 20 minutes per day,” said Chambers.
Here are some activities that he suggests to his clients:
- Start by walking. How can you incorporate walks into your daily schedule? Whether it be on the phone, parking further away or having a morning or evening stroll.
- Have a morning coffee or tea? Drink it outside.
- Ask if you can turn a meeting into a walking meeting or a walk and talk on the phone.
- Consider any breaks you have during the day: Can you get outside for any of these?
- Get some plants. Looking after them will keep you going outside and they will bring you joy every time you see them. Only have a balcony or windowsill? Plant something there!
- Pick a tree you often pass. Take some time each time you do to look at it more closely and notice it.
- Driving the scenic route can give you more of a feeling of being connected to nature. You can even stop and admire the view.
- Like animals? See how you can enjoy nature with your own pet or by visiting other animals.
- Have a short journey? Walk, rather than drive.
- During sunset, step outside and watch it and feel yourself switching off.
- If you can, work outside. Take your laptop and get some natural light.
- Enjoy a particular podcast or audiobook? Go for a walk or sit in a park while you listen to it.
- Explore your local area: There is always something amazing closer than you think!
- Create a space in your home environment that has aspects or reminders of nature, such as plants or pictures taken while out in nature, Becker said.
- Can't step away? Becker suggests playing sounds from nature in the background while completing work or other daily activities.
- Create a routine before and after work of taking a brief walk around your neighborhood, said Becker
- Identify a few five-minute chunks of time during the workday where you can step outside, whether it’s a lunch break or a work task that can be completed outdoor.
Becker stressed that if you don't have any spare time, starting with just five minutes can work wonders. So don't worry about an organized outing — just step outside.