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How Getting Outdoors Heals Body and Mind

How Getting Outdoors Heals Body and Mind

Addiction recovery isn’t just about abstaining from drugs and alcohol; it’s much bigger than that. Recovery is about living a healthier, more fulfilling life. It’s about creating a general sense of well-being so you don’t want to use drugs or alcohol. That’s why healthy lifestyle changes are such a crucial part of treatment and recovery. The body and mind are one unit and what’s good for one is good for the other.

Among many positive lifestyle changes you will make in recovery, one of the best may be spending more time in nature. Our modern lifestyles keep us safe and comfortable indoors but we’ve lost a lot in the bargain. Nature can be a source of calm, joy, and wonder. Spending more time outdoors can benefit your recovery in the following ways.

Nature Is Good for Your Mental Health

Mental health is part of the equation for most people recovering from a substance use disorder. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, at least half of people with a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental health issue, such as major depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and others. While these issues require professional therapy, spending time outdoors can help tip the odds in your favor.

Many studies have found that spending time in nature benefits your mental health, but one large Danish study is especially noteworthy. Because the Danish health system tracks the health of all of its residents from birth, this particular study was able to gather a huge sample of mental health data--in fact, they gathered mental health data from every citizen born between 1985 and 2003. The researchers then compared this data to satellite images that showed which citizens lived in greener areas.

The results were striking. The team looked at 16 different mental health issues and found that people who grew up in greener areas had a lower risk of 14 of the 16 conditions. Children who grew up in more urban settings had between 15 and 55 percent higher risk of developing mental health issues, depending on the specific issue.

Nature Promotes Exercise

One positive aspect of spending more time in nature is that it promotes exercise. Exercise is another crucial aspect of living a healthier lifestyle. Its many benefits include reduced stress, better mood, improved memory, better concentration, better cardiovascular health, healthier body weight, and better overall health. There is even relatively new research suggesting that exercise helps reduce relapse rates among people with substance use issues.

Unfortunately, not everyone loves exercise, especially in its modern form. Too often, we think of exercise as grinding away useless miles on a treadmill or stationary bike or pumping out reps on some sweaty weight machine. It’s no wonder the prospect of making exercise part of your day is less than thrilling.

However, exercising in nature is different; it was what we evolved to do. For example, hiking across varied terrain through changing scenery is both healthier and more enjoyable than mechanical forms of exercise. What’s more, there are so many ways to be active in nature--hiking, rowing, rock climbing, biking, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Whether you just want a calming walk or something more adventurous, there is an outdoor activity to suit your taste.

Nature Reduces Stress

One mechanism researchers frequently cite to explain nature’s positive effects on physical and mental health is its tendency to reduce stress. Chronic stress has many corrosive effects, including cardiovascular damage, digestive issues, poor immune function, anxiety, and depression and anything you do to relax between bouts of stress gives your body a chance to repair itself.

As discussed above, spending time in nature promotes physical activity--since you’re probably walking or biking, rather than driving--and that certainly helps reduce stress, but studies suggest that exercising in nature has an even greater stress-reducing effect. In a study conducted by Stanford researchers, participants were divided into two groups.

One group walked for 90 minutes in a park with trees, shrubs, and grass, while the other group walked for 90 minutes along a busy street. Both groups were given a series of tests including physical tests, brain scans, and questionnaires before and after the walk.

As it turned out, the group that had walked in the park had less activity in a part of the brain associated with rumination, the habit of obsessing over problems. Rumination has been linked to a greater risk of anxiety and depression. For some reason, walking in nature quiets the part of the brain that likes to stir up emotional trouble.

Nature Promotes Prosocial Behavior

Perhaps the most surprising effect of nature is that it can promote prosocial behavior. That may seem obvious if you’re camping with friends or doing other activities that require teamwork but spending time alone in nature can also make you more altruistic. This is because nature provides opportunities to experience awe--the sense of feeling overwhelmed by being in the presence of something greater than yourself.

A number of studies have found that experiences of awe, such as looking down from a mountain top or hiking through a redwood forest, can make us more sociable, less aggressive, more likely to help others, more likely to donate money, and more likely to behave ethically. These kinds of behaviors make you happier in general and they also help you find a sense of social connection, which is a crucial element of a strong recovery.

Spending time in nature can do us a lot of good. In addition to the benefits proven by scientific research, there is also something that is both soothing and restoring about the outdoors. At The Foundry, we understand the healing power of nature and we integrate many outdoor activities into our holistic treatment programs. To learn more about our treatment options, call us at (844) 955-1066.

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