“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
We’ve probably all heard this famous quote by John Muir and felt it resonate deep in our body and soul. But why do the mountains call to us? And why is it so important that we go when we hear that call?
When you’re stressed out by daily life, I’m sure you’ve experienced how beneficial a simple walk in nature can be. And if you’ve been outside for a few days to camp or hike, you know that it can completely rejuvenate you. It’s not just anecdotal evidence that nature is good for us. Scientists across the globe are now studying the benefits of nature, and they are proving that incorporating time amongst the trees, in the mountains or on the water is beneficial in a variety of ways.
For example, spending 15 minutes in the woods reduces your levels of cortisol (NY Times). And what does that actually mean? Well, according to Psychology Today, “[t]he stress hormone, cortisol, is public enemy number one.” High levels of cortisol cause all sorts of health problems, from lower immune function to increased weight gain. Elevated cortisol is also a factor in depression, mental illness and shorter life expectancy. High levels of cortisol are detrimental to our health, and nature is a fantastic way to lower those levels almost instantly.
Spending time in nature has also been scientifically proven to increase creativity. A 2012 study showed that after a few days on the trail immersed in nature, backpackers were 50 percent more creative on a word association test than those who were given the test without spending time outside.
Scientists believe that nature calms down the prefrontal cortex, which allows your brain to access a network of its many other regions that can lead to flashes of insight. This happens when you’re in a state of “soft fascination” - like appreciating the natural beauty around you when you’re hiking, or sitting on the banks of a body of water and watching the currents flow. It’s no wonder that artists, writers and other creative types often seek out natural spaces to do their best work.
This relaxation of the prefrontal cortex is also similar to the effects of meditation. If you’ve you ever tried meditation but found it hard to stick to your practice or that it hasn’t worked for you, exposure to nature might be even more effective. Exploring outside is basically like moving meditation.
A 2015 study showed the effects that walking in nature has on morbid rumination. I think we’re all familiar with this feeling from time to time – when we ruminate, we overthink or obsess about situations or life events, such as work or relationships. In this study, half the participants were told to take a 90-minute walk through a tree-lined area, while the other half were assigned to walk along a busy highway. A questionnaire given after the walks showed that those who walked through the trees “were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.” The scientists also measured blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and found that it had gone down in the subjects who walked in nature, suggesting reduced activity and a calmer mind.
Another study showed that “nature can have humanizing effects, fostering greater authenticity and connectedness.” Students who were exposed to nature through outdoor images or plants in their environment reported valuing personal relationships and helping their community more than money or other superficial goals, whereas those who were not exposed to nature in some way responded more selfishly.
This might be part of the reason why being together in nature provides some of the most meaningful connections you can have with your friends, family or partner. Getting outside will also lessen the distractions of day-to-day life (especially if you don’t have cell phone service or put away your phone), and this gives you the chance to focus on the people with whom you’re spending time outdoors. It’s a great opportunity for deep conversations, especially since you’re also most likely feeling more creative and less anxious just by being in nature. And when you’re marveling at the beauty of a sunset or the majesty of a mountain summit, sharing it with someone close to you creates a special bond.
You might ask why I’ve offered all this scientific information to convince you to get outside more often. And to be honest, it’s truly because there is so much misinformation out there these days! You’re constantly bombarded with many health claims that have very little research to back them up. I look at science as the magic behind the way our bodies communicate with our environment, and find the convergence of nature and human existence absolutely incredible. I hope you do, too!