When you want to unwind, the temptation to watch TV or scroll social media can be strong. While those activities aren’t bad, research shows that spending time outside, when possible, is a healthier way to relax.
Lindley Reynolds, a UNC Health licensed clinical social worker, shares how spending time in nature can be therapeutic for our body, mind and soul.
Studies show that spending time outside reduces cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. It can decrease muscle tension and regulate heart rate, which has a calming effect on the nervous system, Reynolds says. It also helps boost endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, which are some of the brain’s feel-good chemicals.
“We work in a productivity-driven environment,” Reynolds says. “Being outside provides a needed break from our phones and offers us time to slow down, reconnect with ourselves and observe the world around us.”
Deepens the Mind-Body Connection
When your mind is busy and wants to overthink or ruminate on something, spending time outdoors can be a grounding and centering practice.
“It helps to focus on your senses. I frequently ask clients, ‘What does it feel like to notice the air on your skin, the warmth of the sun or the sound of the birds?’” Reynolds says. “Noticing these physical sensations and connections to earth can help center you and help you find stillness.”
You’ll enjoy a double dose of benefits if you exercise outside.
“Exercise helps to regulate our nervous systems, and engaging in movement outdoors makes it even more impactful,” Reynolds says. “Plus, getting outside is free—no membership required.”
Improves Mental Health
Being in the sun helps the brain make serotonin, a feel-good chemical that promotes improved mood. It also helps our bodies produce vitamin D, which is important for overall well-being. Some studies show that sunlight can also help reduce the symptoms of depression.
Engaging with nature can also remind you that you are part of something bigger than yourself.
“A lot of people become disconnected to how their body is in relation to everything else. We often find ourselves on autopilot, checking off the tasks of our day,” Reynolds says. “Being mindful in nature can restore a sense of connectedness and presence with ourselves and all that is around us. Communing with nature can also be a regulating experience, similar to how you would soothe an upset baby.”
Reynolds says that practicing earthing, putting your feet on the ground to soak in the earth’s energy, creates an exchange between you and nature.
“You develop your own relationship with the outdoors, and no one’s experience will be the same,” Reynolds says.
Promotes Better Sleep
Exposure to sunlight first thing in the morning helps regulate your circadian rhythm, your body’s internal clock. The light cues your body that it’s daytime and helps trigger you to feel more awake during the day and sleepy at night, promoting improved sleep.
It can also work wonders for your morning routine.
“Going outside in the morning also allows room for mindfulness practices that can set a more positive, intentional tone for the day,” Reynolds says. “Allow yourself some spaciousness in the morning to go slow. Even if that is only five minutes with your journal and a cup of coffee. Connect with your breath through slow inhales and exhales while observing the scenery around you. Start the day feeling more grateful, in tune with yourself and others and less rushed.”
How to Get Started
If you’d like to start spending more time outside, below are some practical tips on how to start.
Don’t pressure yourself to be doing something.
It’s important to make time to simply be. That could mean taking a short stroll through a garden to observe flowers, walking around your yard or on a trail or simply finding a spot on a bench or against a tree, Reynolds says.
“Being in stillness can be a restorative and healing practice,” Reynolds says. “Oftentimes, when we allow ourselves to slow down and listen to our bodies, we might find that it also may be seeking gentle movement or stretching. Both have ability to release stress and tension.”
This is a time to minimize distractions, put your phone away and break free from the notifications. You don’t want to miss the beauty of your physical surroundings.
“Begin to notice the sun coming through the trees, the honeybee on a flower, the smell after the rain, or a sunrise or sunset,” Reynolds says. “These moments can inspire a childlike curiosity and renew a sense of awe and wonder and what we have around us.”
This connection with nature can help you deepen your connection with yourself.
If you’re walking or exercising, make it enjoyable.
Try not to get so caught up in achieving an outcome, such as 10,000 steps a day, Reynolds says. While that is a good goal, try to also focus on how you feel during the activity.
“Listen to your body and do what you can to make your time outside enjoyable,” Reynolds says. “This could mean listening to a podcast or new music album or scheduling time to walk with a friend to increase connection,” Reynolds says. “Create a space to reclaim your time, where the rest of the day can melt away.”
There are opportunities to volunteer at local community gardens or farms or pick up trash in parks, Reynolds says. Even cleaning up around your own neighborhood can give you a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment.
“Small acts of kindness and care for our community can provide more meaning to our lives and a greater sense of purpose,” Reynolds says. “Spending time with one another to connect outdoors can restore the power of community and promote practices in caring for the environment.”
The more you practice being outside, the more therapeutic benefits you will reap over time.
“I appreciate being outside as a way to understand myself,” Reynolds says. “I can think more clearly, process, reflect and feel a greater sense of gratitude. I hope others can experience some of this for themselves through developing their own mindful outdoor practices.”
If you’re struggling with mental health, talk to an expert who can help. Looking for a doctor? Find one near you.