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Get Outside For Your Mental Health

May 31, 2023

A walk is as good as going for a run – for your brain. Studies reveal that a 20-minute walk just three times a week improves cognitive function as well as decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety. In addition, exercise literally lengthens your telomeres, which are strands of DNA at the end of your chromosomes that protect them from becoming frayed or tangled (which is bad, apparently). Yes, that’s right, a walk. It’s spring now, so we need to get outside and move for our brains.

It’s hard to believe now, but for thousands of generations, we lived outside in small social groups, hunting and gathering. Agricultural communities started approximately 10,000 years ago, which also meant spending the majority of time outside in small groups working together in various ways on the land. It is only relatively recently that we humans have retreated inside, shut off from not only the sunlight and fresh air but each other, to spend our time in front of our screens. Viewed like this, it’s not hard to understand the spiraling rates of anxiety. For most people, connection with others is largely digital and fleeting. Not good.

What happens when we go outside? First off, oxygen surges into your system, feeding the brain the nutrients it needs to function well. Secondly, the feeling of fresh air, wind, sun, and even rain reconnects you with the earth, which literally “grounds” you. Therapists teach their clients grounding techniques to bring them back to the present to relieve anxiety symptoms. You can achieve it by simply walking barefoot across the wet grass or the beach (even better!). Freed from the screen, your eyes adjust to the natural environment, and you notice things like trees, birds, and insects. These things don’t change much, and this is a good reminder to our anxious brains that the world will be around long after the latest “huge issue” will be on our social media feeds. My recommendation is to ditch the Fitbit, which creates new anxiety (have I reached my steps goal? Is this thing working properly?).

When we’re outside, we’re moving more, we’re upright and alert, focused on what we’re doing with our body, and less stuck in our heads and our anxious thoughts. If we can combine these benefits by spending that time with other people that we like, we can foster our social relationships, the thing that most govern our feelings of well-being and happiness. We can best nurture this by physically being together, even if only for short bursts of time, because this replicates the experience of our ancient ancestors, and our brains are soothed by what are essentially repetitions of old habits.

Okay, time to hit the trail. Are you coming?

By Training Institute Director Russ Turner