Can I confess something to you? My family is *not* always in happy, well-behaved, instagrammable moods. Shocker, right? Sometimes we’re just feeling grumpy, out of sorts, lethargic, and brain mushy. (Let’s agree that that’s a new word, k?)
While there are plenty of factors that could be at play with this scenario on any given day, I have discovered one simple fix that has lifted all of our spirits, improved our moods, and injected us with fresh energy – almost every time.
It’s pretty simple: nature.
Yup, that’s it. We go to a local nature reserve space, and play! The kids love to throw rocks into the river, dig with sticks in the sand, play make-believe on the boulders near the water, or tromp through the forest on a little hike.
We enjoy the fresh air, hold hands, and meander along the path behind them, as they run with smiles on their faces and life in their eyes.
It doesn’t have to be a long time, and it doesn’t have to be planned. Nothing is required other than loading up the family and going to a place where you’re surrounded by nature.
(And just to clarify, while going to a children’s playground is always fun, I’m talking about the beach or the forest or anywhere in a natural setting with things like sticks and rocks as toys.)
It’s nothing new, really. We’ve always been a family that loves playing outside, but I recently had a bit of a lightbulb moment.
A few weekends ago we were in deep housecleaning mode. We were tackling some of the remaining moving boxes (finally!) and slowly getting our house more in order. It felt great to be productive, but by late Sunday afternoon we were feeling worn out and tired.
We were quite tempted to sprawl on the couch with a movie for the rest of the afternoon and just chill, but we hadn’t had any outside time all weekend, and agreed that we really should take the kids to our favorite spot down at the river to let them burn off some energy.
We threw some water bottles in a bag, piled everyone into the van, and we headed out. Not only did all of our moods pick up, but our energy levels went way up, too. I felt like a thirsty houseplant that had been neglected, and finally got watered again. (This analogy may or may not play out in my home on a regular basis…)
It was beautifully refreshing, for both body and soul.
My lightbulb moment that day was this: as human beings, we are actually wired to be in contact with nature. Unfortunately, our modern world has disconnected us from nature significantly, but our brains still crave it.
Sometimes we don’t listen, and we try to scratch the itch in other ways.
But when we get outside and surround ourselves with the natural world, our brains are literally invigorated, which in turn invigorates our bodies.
When I got home that day, I did some googling and found that scientists are studying this phenomenon. Being in nature literally changes your brain’s wiring, which I find so fascinating (and cool!)
This National Geographic article describes how Korean researchers “used functional MRI to watch brain activity in people viewing different images. When the volunteers were looking at urban scenes, their brains showed more blood flow in the amygdala, which processes fear and anxiety. In contrast, the natural scenes lit up the anterior cingulate and the insula — areas associated with empathy and altruism.”
Another study measured brain activity on participants after walking in nature versus walking in an urban setting. It showed a decrease in rumination (fixating on negative thoughts) in the prefrontal cortex in those who took a walk in nature. Other studies describe its effects on reducing anxiety and depression.
The mental health benefits of being in nature are amazing. And there can be physical health benefits too! Interacting with nature skin-to- dirt is great for your gut microbiome, and there are also minerals in the dirt that can be absorbed into our bodies, depending on how much contact we have.
The beautiful thing is that the best times are nothing extravagant, and nothing too planned out. We just head to our usual spot (or explore a new one) and let the kiddos loose to play. It’s quite honestly the easiest parenting we do all week because we’re all so content and relaxed, and the kids never get bored.
Now, despite knowing all of this, we sometimes still find it challenging to make time in our schedules. Life remains busy and to-do lists don’t end. Spontaneous trips to the nature reserve for no particular reason are easily relegated to the bottom of the priority list.
However, every single time we manage to actually make it out of the house and do this, I’m reminded of just how soothing and invigorating it is. And of how incredibly refreshing it is to my soul. And how gleeful our kids are to be there.
So knowing this, and thanks to my moment of clarity a few weekends ago, I have fresh resolve to go play in nature on a regular basis. We’re going to designate Sundays as our “get outside day” and make it a weekly habit.
Spending time in natural settings is something I already loved to do, but I’m now officially adding it to my list of natural wellness tools.
How do you use nature in your pursuit of wellness?
Where do you find surprising refreshment? Niagara Water wants to know! Share an inspiring “Refreshing Moment” video for a chance to win $1000. To enter, simply post your short video on YouTube, Instagram or Twitter and use the hashtag #RefreshingMoments. (Thanks to Niagara Water for sponsoring this post!)