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HEALTH BENEFITS OF SUNSHINE
My husband and I took a family trip to Colorado last summer. We have been married long enough that we know I’m never going to be excited about climbing a mountain. I’m a beach body and he’s a mountain man. I love sitting in nature and he loves playing in it. For someone who loves to read, write and draw, I couldn’t help but feel like a misfit in this “exercise” culture.
We stayed in Keystone, a tourist town geared toward skiers. In August, however, everyone is decked out in yoga pants, those hippie strappy shoes (that’s the official name for them), hiking backpacks, and is riding a mountain bike. I packed a pair of jeans and flip flops that broke the first day.
I switched out my jeans for yoga pants (which were my pajamas) and bought a baseball hat and a Keystone hoodie to give the impression I knew what I was doing there.
My husband on the other hand, fully prepared for this vacation, literally climbed a mountain with my son while I skipped to the family activities with my four-year-old daughter. We painted and played games and stuffed our faces full of ice cream and popcorn.
We’d separate into boys and girls for a few hours in the morning: they would ride bikes, my daughter and I would settle in at the playground, and then met back up for lunch, a nap, and an outing before dinner.
In that one week, we flew on an airplane, drove through the mountains, sat in a horse-drawn wagon, steered paddle boats, hiked, rode on bikes and horses, took a train ride up a mountain, and a gondola ride down it. It was wonderful. Everything we did was a different way to be in nature.
THE STILLNESS OF NATURE
Being out in nature just begs me to be still and be in the moment. The sounds of the birds, the trickle of water, the smell of mountain air, the warmth of the sun on my skin, it’s a cozy blanket around me.
Engaging your senses is good for your nervous, endocrine and cardiac systems. According to Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, “nature is good for our emotional state because it calms the frontal cortex responsible for ruminating thoughts and inner drama. [By going outside], our frontal cortex is getting a break like an overused muscle. It’s tiring to have constant cognitive stimulation.”
Even just a 15-minute walk in the woods can help reduce stress, alleviate mild depression, relax tense muscles and lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. So let’s get walking!
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM FINLAND
This year, the 2019 World Happiness Report ranked Finland as the number one happiest country, followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands. What do they all have in common?
These countries are heavy “outdoor” cultures, not understanding the concept of “scheduling-in daily exercise” but rather making it part of their everyday life such as biking to work, and walking to local stores.
In The Finnish Way, journalist Katja Pantzar discusses her move to Finland and how the culture of “movement as medicine” won her over. She struggled with depression (along with 300 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization) and found that her lifestyle choices (poor diet, no exercise, minimal time outside) played a big part in her mental health. She experimented with the combination of ice swimming and saunas, and biking and walking to get around town.
Katja noted that her co-workers rarely discussed shopping as their weekend plans, rather, they stayed busy with outdoor or nature related activities despite the weather. “To say you have been in the woods picking berries and/or mushrooms; fishing at the cottage; swimming at the lake; skiing; or on a mini break is a common reply.”
She goes on to also give examples of ways she learned to get outdoors more often. “Incorporating daily doses of nature into my urban life by going for a dip in the sea every morning and choosing to cycle or walk through a park or wooded area rather than along a busy street has been a key factor in improving my well-being.”
I loved the attitude that making time to get outside was not optional. It was a necessity. Finnish people are outdoors rain or shine and they think it’s more ridiculous to stay inside if it’s cold than to spend a lot of money on good quality all-weather gear.
BACK IN MY DAY…
After reading The Finnish Way, I reevaluated how I approach my kids and outdoor play. So often I say we can’t go outside because it’s too cold or rainy. However we live in Texas, so if it was snowing outside, you know we’d be out there! This past month I’ve been much more intentional in kicking my kids out of the house every day to play.
The more they play outside, the more they want to play outside.
We are so fearful of letting our kids outside these days that we keep them inside more often than not. Too much time inside leads to moodiness, which leads to TV time and more video games. I’m preaching to the choir here. I’ve learned that if I’m not ready for my kids to have freedom to get outside and explore, then I need to take them around and do it with them until they’re ready to be on their own.
There are endless ways to play outside. Remember when you were a kid? We would be gone when the sun came up to when our mom yelled that dinner was ready. Those days are some of my favorite memories. We didn’t have a ton of toys we played with. Most of our fun was done with bikes, a few hills and sidewalk chalk.
Teach your kids how to be out in nature without a plan, without a time limit, without fear of getting dirty. Look for ladybugs, dig for worms, catch fireflies. Teach them how to look around and learn (wait until you go back inside to bust out the phones for research), and to take risks. My kids feel so empowered when I let them choose where we go on bike rides. Don’t make it complicated or expensive.
BRINGING NATURE INSIDE
Just making sure that the curtains are pushed back and the blinds are opened each morning is such a boost to start my day. When I’m sick in bed, sunshine pouring in through the windows makes me more cheerful than when the room is dark and gloomy.
Here are some more ideas for bringing nature indoors:
- Open the curtains
- Run a diffuser with nature scents
- Get a pet
- Add a water feature
- Take care of an indoor plant
- Frame pictures of fun times spent outdoors
- Collect items from trips and put them in jars to display (sand and seashells from the beach, rocks from the mountains, etc)
- Listen to nature sounds
- Put a screen saver of your favorite place in nature on your computer
- Eat fresh fruit
- Watch Planet Earth and Blue Planet on Netflix
- Grow a garden and cook with your produce
- Plant herbs to use in the kitchen
- Sit by the fire
- Light a candle
- Set bird feeders out so you can view them from the window
- Look for squirrels and other wildlife while you eat breakfast
TAKE THE SUNSHINE CHALLENGE
Before we had kids, we’d go on a canoe/camping trip with friends and I would read a book while my husband paddled. Our friends laughed at me, but I was in my happy place. So was my husband. He didn’t seem to mind because when he got tired, he would fish for a bit.
My husband benefits from the physical side of being in nature, while I enjoy the mental health benefits. He encourages me to get outside and be active more and I encourage him to sit and enjoy the moments.
If you’re not making time to get outside, how can you add it to your routine this week?
Don’t stop there! Learn about other ways you can invest in your wellbeing in my Mindfulness Series.
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The future looks bright on you!
- Podcast: Hurry Slowly with Florence Williams–This Is Your Brain on Nature
- Mindful Magazine Special Edition
- The Finnish Way by Katja Pantzar
- The Nature Fix by Florence Williams