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VCU HR Well-Being blog

Giving VCU employees the wellness resources they need to be healthy both on and off campus

By  Claire Van den Heever

It’s no secret that spending time outdoors can positively impact your mental health. Here we take a closer look at some of the preeminent research on the benefits of spending time outdoors and offer some tips for incorporating nature into your life: at home, at work and on your next trip.

It’s Called the Great Outdoors for a Reason

Research by several leading institutions has shown a strong correlation between spending time in nature and mental well-being.

A study in Japan that examined the psychological effects of shinrin-yoku, (a Japanese term that refers to soaking up, or “bathing,” oneself in a forest’s atmosphere) found that even short episodes outdoors can reduce levels of cortisol, the hormone that causes stress in the body. It can also relieve muscle tension.

Cortisol isn’t the only chemical that can be positively affected by Mother Nature. Our endocrine systems also respond to the brightness of a sunny day, whether or not the weather is warm, releasing higher levels of serotonin (your body’s natural mood stabilizer) than it does on cloudy days.

People with more serotonin report an improved sense of psychological well-being, and higher serotonin levels are linked to less anxiety and depression.

Endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” hormones, are also boosted by ultraviolet light, which is yet another reason to spend time in green spaces — or anywhere outdoors, really — to improve mental health.woman in flower field [View Image]Take pause in the wildflowers. (Photo: Getty Images)

Nature Is the Yin to Travel’s Yang

When you think back to your most rewarding or memorable travel experiences, you may notice that many of them took place outdoors — whether it was hiking in the Himalayas or dining al fresco in Italy.

Many of us tend to spend more time outside when we travel; it’s an obvious antidote to sedentary lives spent mostly indoors. Camping, hiking or slack-packing trips can provide you with a generous dose of nature. But trips to cities can also be an opportunity to take time out to soak up nature’s calming effects.

Perhaps you don’t have the time or the inclination to spend four weeks hiking the Camino de Santiago, Europe’s best-known pilgrim’s route.

But nothing’s stopping you from taking a bus to a spot five or ten miles outside the spectacular city where the walk officially ends and hiking back. It’d make lapping up the luxury of one of Santiago de Compostela’s fantastic hotels all the more rewarding!

Physical Activity Enhances the Benefits of Being Outdoors

Fitness experts will be motivated by research conducted at the University of Essex, which suggests that physical training in natural environments has added benefits, particularly for mental health.

Cities like San Francisco or Cape Town — with an abundance of natural beauty and multiple ways to get active — are fast becoming ideal travel destinations for people who enjoy keeping fit when they travel.

Although research into the mental health benefits of spending time in green spaces can be skewed by the fact that people often engage in physical activities during time spent outdoors, some studies have proven that there are advantages to purely immersing oneself in nature.woman on beach with eyes closed [View Image]Find peace in the outdoors. (Photo: Getty Images)

In fact, activities that encourage you to slow down can also have very positive effects on your mental state, whether it’s a few minutes of meditation or simply taking time to savor a morning coffee before inviting digital devices or distractions into your day.

When you consider that travel makes it easier to embrace changes to your routine such as these, it becomes clear how even a short getaway can leave us feeling refreshed and energized.

Change May Be Better Than a Vacation

Most of us have experienced the physical and mental lightness that accompanies a walk in nature or a swim in the sea. It’s worth remembering that experiences like this are often refreshing precisely because they offer us a change of pace from our everyday life.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the spring in your step that accompanies a decision to work remotely for a few weeks. For many people — avid travelers, in particular — a change really is as good as a vacation. How else can we explain the joie de vivre that comes with spending ordinary days differently or somewhere new?

Herein lies travel’s power to revitalize us and offer perspective. When we change our surroundings — even for a short time — our inner landscape tends to adjust, too.

Try taking your yoga mat outside where your bare feet can brush the earth, and feel your mental state shift, ever so subtly. Or tilt your head away from the screen for a minute and refocus on the open sky above the horizon, sensing the power of the outside world to reshape your innermost self.

And next time you find yourself passing a group of trees — however near or far from your home — think about what forest bathing (or shinrin-yoku) might look like for you and, even if you’re in a hurry, stop for a moment to drink in the fresh air. You may just find that it brightens your whole week.

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