How spending time outdoors and enjoying America’s national parks benefits our health
I had the opportunity this summer to meet Conor Knighton at Chautauqua Institution. Conor spent a year traveling to every national park in America, in honor of the national park system’s 100th anniversary in 2016.
After hearing his lecture, I had to buy his book, Leave Only Footprints. And every few pages I had to stop and Google each new national park I now want to go to (which is pretty much ALL of them!).
So when Olivia from Love Holidays reached out about writing an article on the benefits of visiting our national parks, I said yes!
Disclaimer: You don’t just have to visit national parks to experience the benefits of being outdoors. Any outdoor space will do!
How Can our National Parks Support Health & Wellness?
As adults, most of us know that spending time outdoors is a good idea. You can almost feel yourself slowing down and breathing deeper the moment you step into nature – so why do we push this down our priority list?
In between caring responsibilities, work, exercise and a social life, it can be easy to skip outdoor activities; however, they’re a vital part of our health and wellness.
But why does spending time in nature feel so good? And why do experts recommend spending two hours per week in nature for improved health and well-being?
Strap on your hiking boots, and let’s set off and discover the benefits our national parks have to offer.
Change of Scenery
Firstly, heading out into the forest, desert, or fields is a change of scenery. For those of us who live in built up urban areas, spending our time in offices, houses, gyms, shops and restaurants, our connection time with open spaces is limited.
In fact, the average American spends just 7% of their lives outdoors. But a change of scenery can help us jump off the hamster wheel of everyday life, take a step back and gain some perspective about what is important to us.
When you’re in a new place, you’ll also feel more motivated to explore, as there is no set routine to follow. When you look back at your day, you’ll feel proud that you did something new, and perhaps even pushed yourself out of your comfort zone.
When we’re stressed, it can be hard to get out of that mindset. While you might feel like you’re relaxing when you’re sitting on the sofa watching TV, chances are that your brain is still mulling over that issue from work or your personal life. This makes it difficult to genuinely switch off.
In comparison, getting out in nature can help you distract yourself from the issue at hand. While it won’t solve all your problems, research has shown that greater exposure to nature can lead to increased health benefits: namely reduced stress, anxiety and depression.
The best part is that you don’t need to go on a week-long hike in the wilderness to see the benefits – simply hearing bird song or going for a walk in the trees can make a difference.
There’s no doubt that going for a hike in nature gets your heart pumping. Spending time outdoors can make you more physically active, as you explore the landscape and push yourself to see some spectacular views.
Unlike regular gym exercise, there’s no staring at the wall involved – you’ll be so captivated by the scenery that you may find you do more steps than usual, and improve your strength as you climb hills and navigate uneven terrain.
America’s national parks are home to some of the most interesting (and testing) hiking trails in the world, so if you’re up to the challenge, these spots are wonderful places to get your heart racing.
Nature can make physically demanding exercise feel easier, as your brain is focusing on what’s going on around you, rather than how long you have left on the clock.
A 2017 study in Innsbruck showed that hiking outdoors was harder and more tiring than hiking on a treadmill, but the study participants reported that it actually felt less strenuous and they felt happier when they were outdoors.
Learning About the World Around Us
As humans, we are simply part of a larger picture of the world around us. We need to live in harmony with the plants and animals in order to keep a thriving ecosystem and reduce the effects of climate change.
This is especially important in our national parks, where often fragile and vulnerable ecosystems thrive. Spending time outdoors can help us connect with nature, learning about how these other organisms live, and forming a relationship with the world we need to protect.
In turn, this may help people understand why it’s so important to safeguard these natural environments for years to come – climate change is far more than a news story.
It’s clear that there are plenty of benefits to getting outside. Fortunately, America is home to some of the most famous national parks in the world, each offering a variety of different landscapes, flora and fauna.
Wherever you live, there will be somewhere to explore. Or, if you want a total break, why not find a park that you’re particularly interested in and plan a vacation to the area?