Mind & Body

For the Biggest Benefit From Being in Nature, Get Wild

The saying "life's not meant to be lived in one place" is a common one among Pinterest travel boards and wanderlusty Instagram accounts. But in the real world, it's not so easy — it takes time and money to travel to wild and exotic places. Yet exploring your local wilderness or hiking somewhere nearby can be just as beneficial as traveling somewhere new, as long as you do it right. Maybe all you really need to do is go deeper, explore further, and most importantly, get wilder.

Can't Be Tamed

Studies show that nature has positive effects on your mental and physical health, but nobody knows exactly why. Scientists have offered a few explanations. One, known as the psycho-evolutionary theory, says that natural environments reduce stress levels because they have the qualities our ancestors needed for survival, like water and enough openness to spot predators. Another, known as the attention restoration theory, reasons that the shapes and patterns of nature are positively stimulating to a fatigued mind. Still other theories rely on a combination of these and additional factors.

Recently, researchers from Indiana University and Illinois State University conducted a study to compare the effects of three different levels of nature: a wilderness setting, an urban park, and an indoor exercise club. They wanted to find out what factors play into nature's positive effect on our mental and physical health. The team stopped a total of 105 participants that were on their way to one of the three locations. Most of the people heading into the wilderness or the park were there to hike; most of those going to the exercise club were there to run on the indoor track. Before heading in and after heading out, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their stress levels and spit into a sample tube. The team used the saliva sample to test for two telltale signs of stress: the stress hormone cortisol and an enzyme called alpha-amylase that the body secretes when it's in fight-or-flight mode.

Hakuna Matata

Regardless of the site, all of the participants reported a decrease in their daily stress and worries — who wouldn't after a nice hike or a leisurely jog? However, participants that were in the park or wilderness area were the only ones to show increased levels of joy, and only visitors to the wilderness area had a significant decrease in their cortisol levels. Perhaps getting away from the chaos of the world really is the most relaxing — the more remote and wild, the better.

Many people in the U.S. live in or near a large city and are spending less time outside enjoying nature — most haven't even visited famous landmarks nearby. The common excuse is to blame this on a lack of free time due to their stressful schedules, yet nature might be exactly the thing they need! What's more, city residents are at a higher risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses than their rural counterparts. Having a better understanding of how our bodies respond to nature can hopefully encourage us to take it more seriously. By preserving wild spaces even within cities and prioritizing time to visit them regularly, city folks can also reap the benefits of the wilderness.

While you're getting wild, you might as well learn something while you're at it. Ian Stewart's "The Beauty of Numbers in Nature: Mathematical Patterns and Principles from the Natural World" will show you how nature is full of patterns with underlying mathematical principles. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Annie Hartman July 12, 2018