By Amanda N. Wegner
Spring is here, and it’s time to get outdoors. For some of us, that’s easier said than done, but spending time in nature — whether that’s playing hard or simply enjoying the bright sun and fresh air — has many perks.
“Being in nature and understanding how we are connected to it is so important,” says Michelle Peterson, store manager of Fontana Paddle Company. “We gain valuable health benefits such as natural vitamin D from the sun. We work muscles and connective tissue that do not get stimulated the same way on a constant surface such as a treadmill or solid gym floor … this is especially true on moving water. We stimulate our mind listening for sounds, feeling the change in temperature and wind, taking in the smell of nature.”
In short, getting outdoors has plenty of benefits for our health and well-being. As Wisconsin shakes off winter and welcomes spring, here are a few reasons to get outdoors.
Our health and mood is intricately tied to exposure to sunlight. When we’re exposed to bright light, serotonin levels, the hormone typically associated with elevating your mood, rise; conversely, darkness brings up melatonin levels, making us feel sluggish and tired. Light and dark also control our biological clock, or circadian rhythm, which can impact hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism. For some Wisconsinites, this can make fall, winter and early spring difficult, and all that more important that we get outdoors.
“In our Wisconsin climate, with lots of cold and gray days, many people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder,” which stems from the lack of light, says Susan O’Connell, licensed clinical social worker and manager of behavioral health services for Aurora Health Care in Lake Geneva, Burlington and Kenosha. “Just being outside in natural light makes most of us feel better … as long as we dress for the weather.”
She adds that people who have an activity outside usually maintain their positive attitudes and good moods during the season because they have something to look forward to. “It can be as simple as walking outside, but there is an array of outdoor activities that are easy to access in our area,” says O’Connell. “Most of them have the element of exercise, which has been shown to improve mood, health and sleep.”
A SHOT OF VITAMIN D
Not only is Seasonal Affective Disorder a concern in Wisconsin, many of us are short on Vitamin D, which is difficult to get from food alone. Luckily, it’s something we can get from the sun.
Of course, you don’t want to get too much; medical professionals say 10 to 15 minutes of time in the sun is plenty to get a shot of Vitamin D.
Today we are more distracted than ever with full calendars and family commitments, multitasking, social media and texts, app pings and more, which pulls our attention — and brains — in a million directions at once. But spending time in nature can help reset your brain, provide clearer thought; even spark creativity.
“The more time we spend in nature, more profound things seem to happen,” according to journalist Florence Williams in a recent interview. Williams, who recently wrote an in-depth article called “This is Your Brain on Nature” for National Geographic, reported on the growing body of research supporting the benefits of spending time in nature.
But to truly get the health and well- being benefits of being out of doors, it’s important to put down your devices. “Our research shows that if you are in that same environment, but you’re holding a phone and talking, that you negate most of the benefits,” Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, said in the same interview.
After last December’s first snow, Shannon Blay, Adventure Club coordinator at Clear Water Outdoor, participated in a group snowshoe hike followed by a snow yoga class. She didn’t know several of the people, but the experience of being outdoors moving together, feeling the sun and breathing fresh air, “brought the class together. To get fresh air, vitamin D and experience it all with other people, I left that class with two new friends, people I’ve never met before.”
Getting outdoors is especially beneficial for children as they make connections with the environment and their community. In turn, says Sean Payne, manager of the Lake Geneva Clear Water Outdoor store, this helps instill a sense of accountability for how they treat the world and people around them.
Each year, Clear Water participates in a camping event for inner-city children from Chicago at Big Foot Beach State Park. The children camp, paddle and work around the park, learning how to care for the environment. “It creates a sense of ownership and connection for the kids,” says Payne. “And we get to teach them how great it is to be outdoors … something, hopefully, they never forget.”