Putting nature on your calendar

We all need to open our doors for more time with nature. It’s no longer optional.

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Your smartphone calendar is brimming with all the important things in your life: the meeting with accounting, your child’s dentist, dinner with your husband’s boss. Do you have your daily appointment with nature in there, too? It’s something you clearly need to start scheduling for—as close to an hour a day if possible. A walk in the park at lunch, a hike in the woods after dinner, or just sitting in your backyard watching the birds. The point is not about exercise or burning calories, but soaking in the natural world around you. The result is better cognitive function, attention, and general feeling of happiness.

This is not exactly news. We’ve been hearing about (and ignoring) research to this effect for years. What is new and growing is the rate at which we continue to lock ourselves indoors, a trend that has health experts calling “mission critical” on ways to get us back outside and the reverse the dangerous mental and emotional effects on our bodies and minds, according to National Geographic.

The article explains how cognitive psychologist David Strayer took students into the dessert for three days to scientifically measure (with an EKG) their brain function before and after the trip, and compare it against another group of volunteers who stayed in the city. He was not necessarily interested in their happiness, but in their higher order problem-solving. The effect of the visual elements of nature—the butterflies, the sound of a stream, extraordinary sunsets—were fascinating. The brains of the students in nature showed drastically lower brainwaves measuring stress responses than those who stayed in the city. He believes these images are the real and powerful pathway to a more reflective and productive self.

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What can we do? Not all of us have the luxury of working next to a park, living in the woods or the shore–or even having jobs that allow us that much time for lunch near somewhere green. But we can at least start being kinder to ourselves and make more of an effort to surround ourselves with nature on the weekends, even if we start in smaller chunks of time until we can work our way up:

  • According to Kalevi Korpela, a professor of psychology at the University of Tampere, Finland, “A 40-to-50-minute walk seems to be enough for physiological changes and mood changes, and probably for attention.” Korpela also encourages people not just to stroll, but to engage with nature while walking.
  • Health experts urge us to remember that time spent outside doesn’t require a breathtaking vista to be beneficial. Nature is everywhere: no matter where you live, it’s right outside your door. Maybe it’s just a leisurely loop around the neighborhood with your little one bundled into the stroller, or a moment alone on a local park bench.
  • On your next walk, try to notice the sky, its color, the cloud cover. Ditch your earbuds and listen for the sounds of nature: the crunch of snow, the slosh of puddles, the song of birds. Let you skin feel the weather—the heat from the sun, the chill from the wind, the wet from the mist. Pay attention to the world around you. So what if it’s not Yosemite? You’re still experiencing mother earth, and breathing in the fresh air.
  • On days when you just can’t make time for a walk, try this little trick to boost your mood: studies show that focusing on powerful images of nature work as well. So, find a beautiful image of one of your favorite spots—or a place in nature you dream of visiting. Sit on the floor and mentally hold the image in front of you. Admire it for a moment, then close your eyes and breathe in and breathe out, steadying and stilling yourself in the peace and joy of nature.

When it comes to our happiness and well-being, there’s no quick fix. Taking care of ourselves requires making the necessary adjustments and sacrifices to our schedules and our lives.

Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of five books and is a columnist for Her.meneutics and ThinkChristian. She lives outside Chicago with her husband, three kids, and one red-nose pit bull. Visit her at carynrivadeneira.com.

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