“Is it because I haven’t been outdoors for so long that I’ve become so mad about nature? I remember a time when a magnificent blue sky, chirping birds, moonlight, budding blooms wouldn’t have captivated me. Things have changed since I came here.” This comes from “Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl,” a reaction she shares two years after going into hiding indoors during the Nazi occupation of Holland.
I came across the Frank quote, because I’ve been on a diary-reading binge lately, a recommendation by my writing coach for the historical novel I’m now working on. But other reminders about the value of spending time outdoors have popped up recently.
An article in the current issue of the University of Washington alumni magazine asks “Should a dose of nature be the doctor’s orders?” The title of the piece, “Go outside and play,” answers the question. And at a writers’ conference I attended a week ago, an author who writes about the environment talked about writing outdoors, even if it means wearing fingerless gloves and a coat.
The notion of benefits coming from time spent outdoors is new. Just ask Google and you’ll find links to “12 science-backed reasons you should spend more time outside, “11 scientific benefits of being outdoors,” “six health benefits of being outdoors,” and “five ways spending time in nature benefits your health.” Though the numbers of benefits differ, these all confirm that among other things time spent outside can lower your blood pressure, reduce depression and anxiety, and reduce “nearsightedness in children.”
For seniors, we find “7 benefits of being outdoors” in a newsletter blog from a retirement community in Massachusetts. The pluses include “lifting spirits, improving sleep, strengthening immune systems, keeping Vitamin D levels up, and giving our energy a jolt.” This same newsletter blog says sewing reduces stress, which would make its report on the outdoors questionable if it weren’t for all the other reports that align with it.
Beyond just stepping outside, is a Japanese practice called “forest bathing.”
“A forest bath is quality time spent among the trees with no distractions. There’s no end destination like on a hike, or specific type of tree to seek out. All would-be forest bathers need to do is break from all outside distractions (no cell phones allowed) and take in the surrounding forest. Consider it meditation in nature—without any of the concentration or discipline necessary for meditation. In fact, the most important rule for taking a forest bath is no effort.”
Researchers at the University of Washington are going a step further than those who merely tell us to get outdoors. Yes, spending time outside is good for us, but why? “Is it the quiet, is it visual cues or smells, is it the chemicals coming from trees.” With this information, “the better we can describe the outdoor experience you need,” says the lead researcher. What they learn will have use in “designing parks, schools and treatments.”
It’s the time of year in the Pacific Northwest when getting outside without getting soaked is possible. Last week on a perfect sunny morning, a friend and I walked through the University of Washington Arboretum, a forest within a city, a delightful experience that confirmed I need to get out more. Of course, I could always step into my back yard where dandelions and other weeds are calling me. I don’t mind pulling weeds, but the idea of a forest bath that involves no effort is very appealing.