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The Benefits of Time in Nature

Photo by Riley Nelson

It was Saturday—finally. Every week of the semester had crept on tortoise legs, and weekends had turned into the one refreshing gulp of life before plunging back into the fray. But in the past few weeks, even Saturday found itself encroached on, looming reading and paper deadlines pressing me to abandon my leisure and keep my nose to the grindstone.

But today, I decided the homework could wait—I needed some time to myself and some fresh air. Grabbing my helmet and freeing my bike from its padlock, I sailed off down the road toward the river trail. It had been months since I’d gone very far on my bike, but the exhilaration returned in full force as I pumped my legs, up down up down, the wind whisking past. Whereas a school day slowly depleted my energy the longer I went on, the further my tires carried me along the trail, the more energy I seemed to have. The asphalt beneath me roved past poplars and willows, their sporadic placing evidence of one stretch of wilderness as yet undeveloped beyond this single winding trail. Every once in awhile, a stream and its swooping banks ran alongside the pathway, another shield from the city bustle beyond.

I wasn’t alone on the trail. Every few hundred feet brought someone else—an older couple pedaling cycles just fast enough to stay upright but slow enough to chat with each other; a mom with her children, who alternately ran ahead to climb up on a fallen tree or lagged behind to throw pebbles into the stream; teenage boys on skateboards; a middle-aged woman jogging with her dog. As I passed them, I smiled. Even though they were complete strangers to me, sharing this trail made us a community, however temporarily.

But the smile didn’t leave my face. The more I soaked in the sunshine, the cloud-stitched sky, the stretches of structure-empty fields and trees, the more I grinned. I’m sure some of my fellow trail-goers were surprised at my exuberance, but I couldn’t help it. Almost 11 miles later as I alighted back at home, my cheeks were sore from smiling for nearly an hour. I could hardly believe the sense of energy and relief the ride had brought me. It was just fresh air and exercise, but that one hour outside had made me feel more alive than I had in weeks.

The benefits of spending time outside in natural settings are astonishing considering the simplicity of the activity. In the emerging research field called ecotherapy, studies have found that taking time to be in nature correlates with reduced stress, anxiety, and depression; it can also lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. People who regularly spend time outside also tend to rate their own health as “excellent" and experience increased happiness. Spending just 20 minutes outside three times a week can be enough to experience some of these benefits. And it doesn’t take a trip into the wild to experience them—anything from playing in the park to walking a local trail to hiking in the mountains fits the tickets. And as COVID-19 impacts each of us in stressful and unanticipated ways, the benefits of spending time in nature are even more important to claim. So make the time and find the place to be out in nature—the benefits are worth your investment.