Get Thee Outside: Your Brain on Nature

A view down one of the streets on which I walk Ramona morning and evening. Houston, Texas, May 2014.

A view down one of the streets on which I walk Ramona morning and evening. Houston, Texas, May 2014.

Recently, Houston had a monsoon. It woke me in the night, banging at my bedroom with hard rain, lightning, thunder. Good, I thought, and went back to sleep. (When I lived elsewhere, I missed Houston’s prodigious, jungle-style thunderstorms.)

My alarm sounded a few hours later. The monsoon had continued. And it kept on well after I made it to the office, canceling my morning run and dog walk.

I run four mornings a week (and spend three in the gym). If it rains one morning, I’ll force one of my occasional exercise rest days. (I’ll bear the dreadmill only if I face two or more storms in a week.)

Seven days a week, I walk my dog, Ramona. We stroll the neighborhood twice a day, typically for half an hour in the morning and forty-five minutes to an hour in the evening. (We both like to walk.)

In fact, I stay outside as much as I can.

When I visit Travaasa Austin, I live outside except for massages in the spa and sleeping in my room. The rest of the time, I exercise, read, eat, and everything else out-of-doors. As I type this text, I sit on my front porch in Houston. (Alas, Houston summers grow too hot and mosquito-y for porch time.)

All this outdoor time means I spend, at a minimum, an hour a day outside. On run days, I spend more like two hours out-of-doors. Weather permitting, I’ll stay outside an hour or more longer—walking, reading, writing, eating, visiting with friends, what-have-you—and up to all day, if I can swing it.

Houston has had little rain in the last few years. Prior to the recent monsoon, we hadn’t had a major storm in so long that I can’t measure the time since. The drought means I hadn’t realized how much outdoor time in the morning helps me feel on balance for the day. Going from my house to my garage to my car and into the office—with no time outdoors to run or walk Ramona—made me feel grouchy and uneven. (So much for liking that thunderstorm.)

This surprised me a little. Yet the surprise stemmed only from my sudden personal experience of the importance of nature and time outdoors to our wellbeing.

After all, I’ve read the studies: The one that discovered people who exercise outside feel more revitalized, energetic, and positive—and less tense, angry, and depressed. The one that found people who spend time in nature without electronic devices show higher creativity on tests. The one that showed people who walk through urban green space enter meditative states that help with later engagement.

How much time do you spend outdoors each day?