KENNEDYDOGWALKING

A walk through the forest can help our brains and bodies to stay healthy and provide a source of deep healing.

As we move through the final weeks of winter and begin to imagine ways we can finally break free from the grips of the COVID pandemic, one of the most powerful prescriptions for staying healthy is right outside our door.

While many of our usual go-to stress-reduction activities, like going to the gym or a social gathering, haven’t been as readily available for the past year, getting outside and reconnecting with our natural environment is something we can safely do to improve our immune system, reduce stress and improve our mood.

Our physical environment has a huge impact on our health and well-being. It’s not just the air we breathe, the water we drink and the substances we are exposed to that influence our health, but also our body’s ancient biology, which is hard-wired to find that connection with the natural elements from which we originated.

The intersection of nature and health and its potential for healing is one of the most promising new developments in medicine. We often refer to this phenomenon as the “nature pill.” It’s a prescription with many positive side effects.

Have you ever felt refreshed after taking a walk through a forest, park or garden? Or noticed you’re in a better mood after sitting by the lake? These experiences in nature may feel like they are only in our heads, but research suggests that nature can physiologically help our brains and bodies to stay healthy and provide a source of deep healing.

For me personally, nature has changed my entire state of being, shifting my perspective from the first time I strapped on a backpack. I discovered that nature helps my inner world settle and quiets my mind chatter (that inner voice that worries about yesterday or tomorrow). When COVID hit, like most people, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But, each time I stepped into nature, I noticed COVID was slowly, steadily vanishing from my mind. Allowing myself to become grounded in nature, my veil between the inner and outer worlds began to lift.

We now live in a society where people spend more and more time indoors and online — especially children. The average American spends 93 percent of their life indoors. That’s only half of one day per week outdoors. The pandemic has exacerbated this, as we’ve been in major social distancing mode for more than a year now.

City dwellers without access to yards and greenspace have turned to computer and cellphone screens to maintain connection to the outer world. What this type of lifestyle does to our minds is still unfolding as a relatively new way of life in terms of human evolution.

When it comes to exercise, many people are discovering that outdoor exercise actually provides a more rigorous workout than the gym. We engage muscles differently. We flex our ankles more when we run or walk on uneven ground versus on a treadmill.

Outside, we get downhill running, walking or hiking, using different muscles and terrain that challenges balance and agility. This can strengthen connective tissue and prevent injury. Cycling, running and walking outdoors also offer wind resistance, compared to a climate-controlled indoor environment.

And the extra motivation to get to the top of a hill or to reach that beautiful view point, can also power you forward in ways a treadmill cannot.

Even if you’re someone not particularly exercise-minded and simply want to get outdoors and enjoy a casual stroll through nature, the benefits of that experience can be very rewarding for your body, your mind and your immune system.

Lisa Laramy, R.N., is manager of wellness and diabetes education with Berkshire Health Systems.