I wait, patiently poised at the stoplight, one foot on the ground, the other resting on the pedal. The noxious smell of unidentifiable smoke permeates the air as cars wiz past, a constant hum of steady traffic. But across the street, lined with tall evergreen giants, is the wooded entrance to wonderland.
As the light switches to green, I hoist myself back up and cross the divide from concrete to gravel. As I pedal deeper into the park around another bend in the path, the sounds of the city fade away.
I bike along the river until I notice a spot of exposed bank and pull to the side of the path on a whim. Dropping my bike, I walk out onto the bank that extends into the middle of the river.
I lay down on the rocks and smile to myself. I can smell the dirt and hear the water bubbling by. This is the total isolation and peace that I’ve been craving.
If you’re like me, you currently have the half-crazed face of a zombie whom someone has been inoculating with a caffeine IV. You’re simultaneously pounding out a 20-40 page paper on “anthropogenic effects on bear behavior” (currently on 17 woot woot), learning the five steps to statistical hypothesis testing, and writing this article.
The brief interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas break is a free-for-all that fluctuates between stints of undeserved calm and total crisis mode. This chaos of finals ensnares us so tightly that we feel downright guilty taking a half hour to go for a quick jog, or even leave campus (I know, crazy talk) and get outside. But perhaps we shouldn’t feel so guilty after all.
Taking little bits of time to get outside, in whatever flavor you prefer, is actually good for you.
Research shows that all humans feel a basic appreciation engaging with nature. Such engagement can occur on one of three levels: 1. Viewing nature (watching the snowfall from your library carrel), 2. being “nearby” to nature (a peaceful morning walk to the library), or 3. actively participating in the great outdoors (who am I kidding, ditch the library and go for a run or something). Multiple studies also confirm this, all with the general conclusion that nature reduces stress.
Researchers hypothesize that such stress reduction is a result of our ingrained primal instincts. That is to say, those who could operate well in the wild (find the food, get to the water, avoid the poisonous berries) had survival advantages. The official name for this is the “biophilia hypothesis”.
So why is nature still a destressor today?
Researchers continue to investigate this question, but one explanation is that being outside rejuvenates your stress-fatigued neurons. Another suggests that it triggers “old” brain function, allowing the concentrated and exhausted portions of your brain to take a break.
Students from the University of Pennsylvania Outdoors Club (UPOC) agree with researchers regarding the brain-clearing powers of the great outdoors. In a survey conducted among students, jogging off campus, backpacking, and relaxing in a hammock were reported as some of the most popular escapes from the chaos of college life.
“When I’m in my hammock, I can forget the work stresses that have accumulated over the week. Away from the computer, I’m not causing my eyes late-night strain, and I’m not constantly taxing my mind,” said one student.
But getting outside isn’t just about turning the brain off. Sometimes the focus and flow of a sport like rock climbing provides rejuvenation. “It’s totally focusing,” reported a UPOC climber. “When you’re climbing, there isn’t room for anything in your head but you and the wall – otherwise you’ll fall off.”
The benefits of getting outside go beyond relaxation. For many students, the greatest reward is a sense of community. “There’s something about getting lost in the woods, eating freeze-dried food, and walking 11 miles a day that really brings people together,” said one student. “Maybe it’s just shared trauma.”
So I leave you to it… because it’s currently 2 a.m., I am not a page further in my essay, and I know tomorrow is going to be a doozy. But remember, when you’re sitting in the library and your energy is waning, turn to the outdoors for some rejuvenation. You might just end up finding that restorative peace you needed.
Ed. Note: This article was updated on 2/7/2018.