Driving up-mountain this morning, my husband mentioned an article he had just seen in the Wall Street Journal. Nothing about executive orders this time–unless (and I’m dreaming now) it’s an order from executives to their direct reports to get outdoors and take a walk at lunch hour.
After “good morning,” the first thing I had said today was “Can we go snowshoeing?”
I’d just looked out the window as I walked toward the kitchen. Especially on a day like this one, I simply have to get outdoors. It’s like an addiction. I’m beginning to figure it out.
I read the Wall Street Journal article after we returned home. People feel better and do better the more they spend time outdoors, it said, and ideally, outdoors somewhere in the countryside.
“Many experts agree that there seems to be a dose curve for the benefits of nature,” it read, under the headline ‘To Fight the Winter Blues, Try a Dose of Nature‘. “In general, the more time you spend in nature, the better you will do on measures of vitality, wellness and restoration.”
Pulling up at the trailhead, we found to my delight that the trail had been freshly groomed. A smooth new highway in the snow wound through the unoccupied campground, and we would be the first to travel it.
We ambled through a silent forest. The view ahead was a palette of four colors. The trees that waved above us were, of course, forest green. Beyond them, the sky was an uninterrupted swath of deep periwinkle–except for a contrail high above, which the wind had spun into a ribbon of lace. Each step drew us into the shadows of deep purple and the snow, which was of course pure white.
I had brought along hand-warmers and toe-warmers, but they stayed in my pocket. Eventually I shed my hat and my gloves, even though a stiff wind would blow up now and again to chase the loose snow around. It never fails to amaze me that I get warm while snowshoeing, even on the coldest days.
After a while, we heard voices and a motor. It was the volunteers from DART (Dubois Association for Recreation and Trails), returning from their grooming run. I stopped and kissed them both on the cheek, to thank them for coming out early to do this work. Of course, they’re getting their outdoor fix as well.
Back when I worked in an office in Manhattan, it was my habit to spend lunch hour at the gym whenever I could. I’m a firm believer in the many benefits of regular exercise (and it helped that I kept reading about them in my job as a medical editor).
The benefits of just being outdoors took longer to dawn on me. After I while, I began taking long random walks at lunch hour instead. I thought I was just enjoying the bustle of the city and the diversity of its people. But it always seemed I would head for a pocket park or for a wide view across one of the rivers.
Being outside in the city is better for your well-being than staying indoors, said the article, but country or the wilderness is best. Many city people may avoid going outdoors, it added, “because a chronic disconnection from nature causes them to underestimate its hedonic benefits—that is, how much it will contribute to their happiness.”
When I telecommuted from Dubois, I used to work from 7:30 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon, during the office hours of my coworkers back East. This gave me the delightful prospect of a hike in the woods each day after work. I’m afraid I used to gloat about it.
I’ve heard friends say that they just feel happier here in Dubois, although they’re not sure why. For myself, I know that I’m happier when I’m able to hike outdoors every day, even — and maybe especially — in the dead of winter.
The benefits of exercise and exposure to nature aren’t the whole story. Numerous studies have shown that sunshine itself acts as an antidepressant. The duration and intensity of sunlight have a direct effect on the rate of production of serotonin, the chemical messenger in the brain that causes depression if it’s in short supply.
Is it any wonder I get blue around Christmas time, when there’s so little sunshine? Or that I’m so happy here in the summer, when the days are so long, the skies so clear, and the sun so bright?
“Regional and national parks, wild coasts and wilderness areas are the places where we can best reflect and recover from the stress of work and the news,” the article concluded. (Perhaps our distance from the East Coast is not only the factor that shields us from the post-election stress of 2017.)
It ended with a quote from the great nature writer John Muir: “Come to the woods, for here is rest.”
© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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