Why Our Brains Love Being Outside

May 21, 2018

 

We all love being outdoors. But why? Is it just a preference? Turns out that there's some concrete evidence for why we all feel so much better when we're outdoors.

As doctors, we've stumbled upon several very cool principles about how the brain and body work. When we look at these principles as they relate to our outdoor adventures, it makes perfect sense why we keep coming back to nature.

1. Physical Activity Promotes Overall Health

   

Physical activity increases circulation, which brings needed nutrients to all our cells. The combinations of sensory stimulation also increases brain connectivity, which is especially crucial to young developing minds. This in turn leads to lasting health benefits, including neurogenesis, or the regeneration of new brain cells in parts of our brain. This can aid in memory, learning and mood. Physical activity also helps prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinsons and Alzheimer's. Our body recognizes these benefits and begins to crave the physical activity that brings these results.

2. The Outdoors Both Excites and Calms our Autonomic Nervous System

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates the function of all our organs and balances our sympathetic (which controls our fight or flight reaction in response to stress) and parasympathetic (which promotes our rest and digestive functions) nervous systems. There are outdoor activities that activate the sympathetic branch, and outdoor activities that activate more parasympathetic activity. Exciting activities, such as mountain biking, climbing, skiing, sky diving and running, activate the sympathetic branch, giving us boosts of cortisol. In periodic small doses, cortisol can improve memory and increase thermogenesis, an increase in body temperature that helps burn fat.

   

That being said, we need a balance of activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Too much and too frequent activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to several problems. Luckily, nature also provides excellent opportunities to activate the parasympathetic branch. This branch is activated by restful and relaxing activities, such as meditation, watching the sunset and deep-breathing after a long hike. The parasympathetic branch promotes healing, cellular regeneration, improved digestion and pain relief. The right balance of the autonomic nervous system promotes incredible health benefits, keeping us coming back for more every weekend.

3. Waterfalls and Ocean Waves Boost Our Mood

Those who live close to the sea love

the beach and those who are landlocked frequently find their way to water. There's a scientific explanation for this as well! According to WebMD, this is caused by the presence of negative ions, which, ". . .are odorless, tasteless, and invisible molecules that we inhale in abundance in certain environments. Think mountains, waterfalls, and beaches. Once they reach our bloodstream, negative ions are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our daytime energy." Next time you're at the beach, or hike to a waterfall, just think about how happy and grateful your blood is that you chose to be outside today.

4. Hiking Literally Clears Our Head

Most of us live near cities or in suburbs with pretty high amounts of pollution. When we go hiking, not only do we get away from the polluted areas, but we immerse ourselves in oxygen-emitting trees and plants. Your brain is only about 2% of your total body mass, and yet it uses 20% of your body's oxygen.

Granted, when we hike to high elevations, the air is thinner and consequently there is less oxygen. But this actually trains our lungs to be more efficient. Over time, our body becomes more capable of pulling oxygen from the air, allowing us to get the oxygen we need, even in areas where oxygen concentrations are low. 

5. Being Outdoors Improves Attention Span

The more we remain in our busy hectic lifestyles with thousands of notifications, alerts, ads, and problems that pull our attention, the shorter our attention span may get and the harder it can become to

focus. When we choose to be in the great outdoors, our attention turns to the incredible scenery and people we are with. When we return to our busy lifestyles, we can be more effective at work, do better in school, and even have better relationships.

We've known for centuries that we naturally feel good when we're outdoors. Now we know why. So next time you're debating whether you should go on a hike or watch our favorite TV show, think about all the amazing benefits you will gain from choosing to be outside.

 

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