Nurture your brain: Get outside.
Written by: Meg Sharp, Wellbeing Consultant, Cambridge Group of Clubs
Want to feel better immediately? Walk to your nearest door, open it, step outside, and take a deep breath.
Most of us have experienced how being outside can alter how we are feeling. Immersing ourselves in a green or blue space can be calming, invigorating, centering… however, it makes us feel the net impact is typically positive. Sometimes transformationally so.
What IS it about being in the great out of doors?!??!
Many have argued that our affinity to nature is innate. More specifically, that being outside is a biologically based need, integral to our development and survival. Both individually and as a species. Our first homes were carved into and created using the natural environment. We were born into the natural world sheltered and protected by cave walls, rock overhangs, earth, trees, roots, or even ice. Surrounded by plants and flowers, we are close to an abundance of possible nourishment. When we can gaze upon the horizon, we can see predators and storms approaching and thus have ample time to prepare. And then there’s being close to water. What is more important for sustenance? Proximity to water will calm our nerves and set us - and our community - up to thrive.
Whatever the biological explanation, I bet you’ve felt it. And – again irrespective of exactly why it happens – we can measure and prove that people’s bodies and brain respond quite dramatically – when a person is surrounded by nature.
Specifically, exposure to nature evokes a parasympathetic response in our nervous system. Opposite to a sympathetic – fight or flight – response, the parasympathetic response is a calming, centering one. Our heart, respiration rate, and blood pressure lowers, our cortisol, stress, and anxiety levels drop, our mood is elevated, anger dissipates, and our memory and creative thinking improves.
Life is chaotic. At work and at home our attention is pushed and pulled in numerous directions. Numerous stimuli – noise, traffic, crowds, technology – create what some refer to as cognitive fatigue as our attention gets directed to one place, then another, then the next. Spending time in nature has been shown to slow our attention, reduce level of arousal, and facilitate mental restoration and repair.
Simply being outside – green space or not! – exposes us to natural light and helps us sync to our circadian rhythm, improving quality and quantity of sleep, increasing our energy, motivation, and improving digestion. If the sun is shining, you’ll also enjoy the anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, and neuroprotective properties of Vitamin D. There are so many beautiful, welcoming green spaces in our downtown core!
Ever notice you breathe a little deeper when you’re outside? These slower, more deliberate breaths are calming, and raise the oxygen level in your brain facilitating improved cognitive function and increasing serotonin levels.
And how about exercise outside? For starters, people simply tend to move more when they are outside. People report that when they exercise outside they find it more enjoyable, more satisfying, and are far more likely to repeat the activity. Exercise on natural, dynamic ground – including fields and trails – is associated with increased levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) known to boost mood, memory, and cognition and burns more calories to boot!
We know. Time is tight. So, while full immersion in a park where you’ve escaped the din and chaos of an urban setting might be ideal – know that simply looking at or listening to nature is beneficial as well.
And so, today – right now if you can – find a window to sit beside, or fill your ears with the soothing sounds of a winding stream and slow down. Breathe deeply, and try to let your shoulders and your troubles melt away. Just for a few minutes. You can pick your stress back up in a few minutes. Put it down for now, and give yourself and your brain a much needed break.
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