Americans are getting outdoors more often now—especially with gyms and entertainment venues still closed in many areas.
While many of us are also at home much more—and while the couch, a bowl of popcorn and another round of Netflix are tempting—many people are discovering the world outside their front door is an antidote to the loneliness and loss of muscle tone that can go hand-in-hand with increased isolation.
“Not only is it safer to be outside during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also an incredible opportunity to vent the stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic,” said Lina Velikova, MD, PhD. “Being outside and moderately exercising is good for your body and mind. Even jogging around your block will be helpful because you’ll soak in some sunshine and breathe fresher air.”
You don’t have to be a jogger or an outdoorsperson to reap the benefits of getting outside. Exercise is important, of course — but health care practitioners and researchers alike suggest simply strolling, mindfully wandering, or sitting down outdoors to contemplate can offer a much-needed break from work, Zoom classes, homeschooling, and the generalized anxiety many of us are experiencing now.
The Move Outside
Massage therapist and educator Michelle Roos, 42, is one of the many Americans who has gotten outdoors more often in 2020. (The Outdoor Industry Association recently reported a more-than-8% gain, since mid-2020, of Americans taking up cycling, hiking, birdwatching, camping, running and other outdoor activities.)
Growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Roos camped, hiked, walked along creeks and into caves, and competed on the swim team. She’s always been active, with regular gym workouts, yoga classes and walking — whether in parks or exploring cities — at the top of her list.
Since the pandemic started, Roos and her husband, Paul Kohlmeier, made exploring local parks, like the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Preserve and Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands, near their home in Lantana, Florida, a regular pastime.
“That was where we could go and be out in nature and not around a lot of people,” said Roos, who co-owns, with Kohlmeier, educational company Cupping Canada and has been in massage practice for 21 years. “We just walk laps — and there’s tons of alligators and birds.” Other times, Roos will walk the two miles from her home to the beach and walk further, looking for shells, or just sit and listen to the waves.
Roos’s walking and hiking are effective ways of protecting her bones as she ages, said Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, who practices in outpatient orthopedics in northern New Jersey.
“Exercising outdoors, especially activities like walking, running and hiking that enact ground reaction forces when the feet strike the ground, are especially beneficial as they stimulate osteocytes,” Gasnick said. “Osteocytes are bone cells responsible for building new bone and are highly activated with muscle stimulation from resistance training and weight-bearing movements, or anything that requires being on your feet.”
Walking up inclines also stimulates activation of the glutes and quads, which can improve balance and lessen back pain — and walking on uneven terrain like sandy beaches, grass and rocky trails requires added balance and activates additional muscle activation strategies in the ankles, hips and core, said Gasnick. “This is often done innately, so you may not even notice the added attention your muscles and joints are getting with outdoor activity.”
Get All of You Out There
A growing body of research indicates spending time in nature correlates to lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, enhanced immune system function, reduced nervous system arousal, and simply makes us feel better. Causation has not been proven, however, meaning more research is needed.
One study of 20,000 people showed spending at least two hours per week out in nature — any type of green space, such as a park or other natural environment — is associated with self-reported good health and wellbeing.
Another study from Japan, which introduced shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, found spending even a short amount of time in the woods has a beneficial effect on the immune system.
Researchers in the growing field of ecopsychology say the benefits of being outdoors aren’t just about looking at pretty scenery; what works best is to feel the earth under one’s feet (or rear), put hands in soil or sand, stick the feet in running water, and breath in fresh air along with the natural aromatherapy emitted by plants and trees — in short, experience the outdoors in a whole-body way.
“Listen to the sounds of nature, take in the colors with your vision, smell, focus and sense what’s there, that’s why we have all these senses,” said Theresa Schmidt, PT, 59, a continuing education provider who offers retreats for people to experience a full immersion in the forest, on property near Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire. “If I see a honeysuckle flower, I pluck one, I taste it, you know, little things — because that brings you into nature.”
When she isn’t leading a retreat or running her company, Educise, Schmidt snowshoes, skis cross-country, cycles, swims or kayaks. She’s relatively new to country living, having moved from New York, New York, in 2018. Back when she was living in the city, she still sought out nature around her, mostly on visits to Central Park.
No matter where you live, nature lives too. You just might have to look for it a bit more in some places than others, something massage therapist and continuing education provider Ariel Hubbard, 52, owner of Hubbard Education Group, is well acquainted with.
Hubbard has been in practice since 1994 and has lived in 10 different states, most recently in Orange County, California, before moving in 2015 with her now 11-year-old son to Sammamish, in western Washington.
Hubbard found something to do outside no matter where she lived, whether it was exploring petroglyphs while walking around archeological sites in the Southwest, enjoying the abundant rhododendrons blooming in Pittsburgh, or sitting and meditating under waterfalls on Maui.
“Being outdoors has always been important to me, because it always helps me feel more balanced, grounded and healthy,” Hubbard said.
Bring the Outdoors Home
You can enjoy some of nature’s benefits without leaving home, said Schmidt. “I advise people, if you can’t get out, you’re stuck indoors, still build a sacred space inside,” she said. Houseplants, artwork, a terrarium or aquarium, and nature sounds are all ways to achieve this.
Still, Schmidt added, there is no substitution for getting outside, especially right now. “Why not get out now when we need it most? It doesn’t mean that you can’t be socially distanced and stay safe — and whether it’s a city park or pristine forest, it makes such a difference. Don’t hide inside.”
About the Author
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief, print and digital. Her recent articles include “New Massage App Puts Power in MTs’ Hands,” “The MASSAGE Magazine interview: Benny Vaughn,” and “2020 Massage News in Review.”