With the tremendous popularity of fitness clubs these days- even in temperate climates – it’s a good idea to examine the benefits of exercising outdoors. Since many of us spend our days working in confined office environments, with a healthy dose of automobile time thrown in too, it’s essential to attain a healthy balance between confinement (home, office, auto) and the fresh air, open space and warm sun that humans have enjoyed for millenniums. Spending time outdoors engaged in physical activity is critical to good health, stable mood and energy levels, stress management and overall well being. We are simply not made to spend the majority of our lives in confined spaces with stale air, artificial light and environmental pollutants like electro-magnetic fields that we will discuss shortly.
As you bask in sunlight and breathe fresh air, your body becomes energized on a cellular level. Fresh air is charged with electrical energy in the form of negative ions. These are tiny, highly reactive molecular fragments that nourish our cells with the oxygen and other nutrients they need to function optimally. The most highly energized air is vast open spaces, such as by the ocean or in the mountains. Wind and sunlight both boost negative ion levels. This is why you typically feel energized and exhilarated after a day of skiing or hiking, even though you have physically exerted yourself far more than normal. On the other hand, confined spaces are charged with positive ions, molecules that rob the ambient oxygen of energy.
The effect of positive ions is particularly severe when you are surrounded by lots of metal or plastic – such as on planes, trains and automobiles (no wonder John Candy went nuts!). Positive ions also flourish over negative ions when air is polluted with dust, smoke or chemicals, as is common in big cities. You can probably attest to times when you’ve felt exhausted from merely sitting at a desk, riding in a car or flying on an airplane for hours. Complaints of fatigue, boredom and lack of inspiration are common among office workers, while outdoor laborers rarely complain of these conditions. On a windy, sunny day in the mountains or at the beach, negative ions outnumber positive ion by a ratio of 3:1. In polluted air, positive ions can outnumber negative ions by as much as 500:1! Note: you can somewhat counter the harmful effects of positive ions by having live plants in your indoor area (they remove CO2 from the air) and purchasing a combination deionizer/air purifier. Since ions are electrical, these machines can refresh the air in office or home identically to fresh air.
An additional concern for office and home health is exposure to electro-magnetic fields. While we all know about the dangers of leaky X-ray machines or nuclear power plant accidents, ongoing exposure to low-level, seemingly harmless radiation is also a significant health concern. Cell phones, computers, televisions, overhead power lines, wireless internet routers, microwave ovens, blow dryers, electric blankets (the absolute worst – throw yours away if you have one) and other machines that run continuously emit electro-magnetic fields (EMF’s) that disrupt your natural bodily functions. Repeated exposure over time is thought to accelerate aging and lead to degenerative diseases. Make an effort to avoid operating these items close to your head – skip the blow dryer, talk on speaker phone instead of handset or Bluetooth, get rid of your microwave (it alters the molecular content of food and drives molecules from the plastic wrap or container into your food – particularly when used for cooking instead of reheating or for molecularly sensitive foods like fish).
The antidote for all of these unpleasant elements of industrialized life is to write yourself a prescription (free, even if you don’t have a comprehensive health insurance coverage) for a daily dose of sunlight, fresh air and open space. Few among us can argue successfully that this isn’t possible. We go to great lengths and travel long distances to earn a living, buy stuff or seek passive entertainment. The least you can do for yourself is carve some time out each day for a personal interaction with nature.
The anecdotal benefits of experiencing nature and open space are well recognized. Research has quantified the psychological benefits of integrating nature and civilization effectively in “sustainable communities”. Conversely, the stress and negative psychological consequences of irresponsible development or poor lifestyle choices by urbanites who shun nature are well-chronicled. Researcher Roger Ulrich has gathered two decades of studies showing that the mere viewing of photographs of natural scenery can reduce stress levels and regulate emotions. Ulrich believes that focusing on something outside normal life helps block stressful thoughts and fosters “psychological restoration.” No wonder screensavers typically have images of nature – it’s the next best thing to actually being at the Na Pali Coast or Grand Canyon!
Dr. Nora Rubenstein, in her article “The Psychological Value of Open Space”, notes that “researchers describe an innate human ‘psycho-evolutionary framework’ that mandates our awareness of the potential of any landscape to nourish and shelter us,” and that in the modern world we have “translated our survival needs into a more spiritual or metaphysical need for landscapes that are based in, but no longer tied to, our evolution.” Margaret Mead called “the necessary relationship to the natural world – the satisfaction of a cosmic sense” just as critical to human well being as food and drink. Extensive research confirms that spending time in nature is a natural stress reducer, because, as Rubenstein relates, it helps reduce physiological arousal, providing a ‘cognitive quiet’ that necessitates fewer decisions based on external demands.”
The popularity of challenging outdoor activities like hiking, backpacking, cycling, skiing, hunting, fishing, river rafting, rock climbing, sailing, kayaking, surfing and the like are testament to our genetic need to compete, explore our physical limits, venture into the unknown (particularly to balance our safe, predictable modern routines) and gain control over, or work in harmony with, our natural environment.