Long walks on the beach. Fresh mountain air. Fall leaves crunching under my boots. Yes, the clichés all apply, but opting outside is about more than just the perfect #nofilter shot on Instagram.
The lessons that nature offers us are countless.
The growing literature on the developmental benefits of outdoor activities for children – particularly girls – is simultaneously inspiring and staggering. Outdoor experience helps girls create a positive body image. In fact, girls and women who have done one week of camping show significantly better body image than those who have not.
Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods coins the phrase “nature deficit disorder” which describes the many ways that the lack of unstructured outdoor play affects developmental and physical health for children. Nature creates a space for children to take risks and test their limits. This is how we evolved. A child gains the confidence to climb one limb higher on a tree, because he’s tried it and failed. All those scrapes and falls the first few times have taught him how to climb safely this time – taking appropriate risks. As adults, nearly every decision involves some risk, so it’s crucial that we learn to weigh them early in life.
The sense of efficacy that children develop by trying new things and learning new skills in nature creates empowered, goal oriented and tenacious adults. It teaches us that we have the ability to innovate and to solve problems using the resources we have and a little creativity.
The health impacts of nature go beyond the obvious benefits of staying active. Our physical and mental health benefits from time in nature in myriad ways. In 2015, research from the University of Chicago found a positive relationship between urban green space and health – an increase of just 11 trees on a city block has cardio-metabolic health benefits comparable with a $20,000 increase in income or being 1.4 years younger. While there are real disparities in access to and experiences in nature for low income and minority groups (which I’ll discuss in a future blog, but for now take a look at research from the National Park Service), this line of research offers hints at the importance of urban green space.
Stanford researchers also found that even brief exposure to nature – in this case, a 90 minute walk in the woods – can create a decrease in thought patterns that are associated with the onset of mental illness and depression.
The Japanese practice of Shirin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” is thought to enhance physical and mental health. A 2010 study found that those who engaged in the practice had lower blood pressure, heart rates, and stress hormones than other treatment groups.
And this is the beauty of REI’s #OptOutside campaign. A marketing campaign, yes, but one with real value behind it. It reminds us that amidst the ephemeral, consumerist flurry of the holiday season, nature is a constant and provides us with not only the natural resources we need to survive, but also the skills and peace of mind that help us thrive when times are tough.
It is Thanksgiving, after all. So let’s all go outside, thank Mother Nature for all that she does, and hug some trees.
 Mitten, Denise (1992).
 Mitten, Denise (2016).