When was the last time you went walking in nature? Countless studies and oodles of research, including work by Dr. Josh Axe in Eat Dirt, tell us all the ways that walking in nature is beneficial, including the scientific reasons down to your cellular function. But we really don’t have to think very hard about it to see that walking in nature is good for us.
What happens when you walk in nature? Our ancestors lived in nature. They were close to the earth. Some cultures even display symbiotic relationships with nature, giving back as well as taking from the resources around them. It makes sense, then, that our DNA is hardwired to thrive in the wild. But modern living looks very different from the lives of our ancestors.
Before you start to worry, don’t—you do not need to live entirely off the grid in a primitive hut or cave to experience the full health benefits of an anti-modern life. You can build your connections to well-being simply by walking in nature.
Walking In Nature and Your Circadian Rhythm
Your circadian rhythm includes physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle and respond primarily to light and dark. It is basically your biological clock. Your body knows that when it is light outside you should be awake and active, and at night your energy wanes because your body knows this is time to rest.
In the human brain, the circadian rhythm works through tens of thousands of nerve cells that make up the hypothalamus, which is hardwired to the eyes. So as your eyes detect changes in light (among other things) they signal to your brain and connect to your internal clock to regulate your energy and behavior.
Simply put, your eyes need exposure to natural light, which you get when walking in nature, to regulate your circadian rhythm. Long hours in windowless environments, in front of screens with synthetic light and a controlled atmosphere can wreak havoc on your circadian rhythms and throw the body into distress. (This is also why protection, like blue light-blocking glasses, is so important.) Walking in nature becomes more than just a quick movement exercise or mindfulness practice. Walking in nature literally changes your life.
(Side note: If you’re looking for a fun rabbit hole to dive into, try researching the effects of artificial light, especially from screens, on the human brain and, consequently, the body. We were made to live with nature, and screen time is a major contributing factor to much to today’s mental and emotional ailments.)
Read More: Make the Most of Indoor Natural Lighting
Mental & Emotional Health Benefits
Once you understand that walking in nature regulates your circadian rhythm, which is essential to human functions, the researched benefits become obvious. Walking in nature exposes your eyes to natural unfiltered light. This exposure also triggers a natural release of serotonin and other hormones in the body, leading to better and more stable moods as well as energy. (Ever notice how lethargic you feel on a gray day when you can’t go outside or never see the sun?)
While similar results can be achieved with infrared technology (especially helpful in locations with long dreary winters where outdoor lighting and sun exposure are significantly reduced for months at a time), there is no replacement for the real thing.
Naturally, this release of hormones is directly tied to your mood. When we spend time walking in nature, we see a reduction in depression and anxiety, and other mood disorders as our body regulate the chemical balances that are often directly tied to our emotional and mental health.
When you think of it that way, walking in nature is a free wellness remedy for most people.
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Just as walking in nature improves mental and emotional well-being, it also improves our physical well-being. Our mental, emotional, and physical health are all so closely tied together, and improving one often brings improvement to the others. Walking in nature offers an abundance of physical benefits, but here are just three that are mind-blowingly simple and drive a big impact.
Just as exposure to natural light releases serotonin, exposure to natural dark (moonlight, starlit skies, an evening walk) signals through your circadian rhythm that melatonin is needed, which makes you drowsy. A natural and healthy release of melatonin leads to consistent and restful sleep. And we all know how important sleep is to our mental and emotional health as well as our physical health. Just ask a new mom, a college student, or even an infant!
With better sleep also comes improved hormone stabilization. We talked above about the mental and emotional benefits of stable hormones, but the physical benefits are there too—healthy and strong hair, clear skin, and natural immune responses are all on the list. When your hormones are properly balanced your body can naturally absorb and process vitamin D from the sun, which helps to regulate all of these things. Walking in nature really is a cure-all!
Walking in nature even affects your eating habits and digestion. Those ever-present and all-important hormones paired with a well-rested body will allow your body to digest and process foods more easily, reducing common digestive issues like IBS, acid reflux, and indigestion. When your body isn’t battling these things, it can signal more effectively when it needs to eat and when it is full.
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The interconnectedness of each of these areas of your wellness cannot be overstated. If your mental health is poor, chances are you are seeing emotional and physical ailments as well. When one area is struggling, they are all struggling, and improving one area will improve the others. And as crazy as it sounds, walking in nature is a really solid start to improvement across the board.
Naturally, there are some cases where walking in nature will not cure your ailments depending on their severity. But even in severe cases, the benefits of walking in nature have been proven time and time again, improving the body’s overall wellness and often reducing symptoms.
Your circadian rhythm is your motherboard. It is central to helping your brain and other organs do their jobs effectively, and walking in nature is perhaps one of the simplest things we can do with the largest of impacts. Five minutes, fifteen minutes, or thirty minutes are often enough to make a little difference. Nature parks and truly wild areas are ideal if you can access them, but even a walk in your neighborhood, down the street to the grocery store, or around the block on your lunch break are great options.
The point is that walking in nature is accessible to everyone in one way or another, and the benefits are infinite. So maybe check the last time you went walking in nature and start making it part of your routine.
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