There’s an ancient Korean proverb: “Shin to bul ee.” This translates to body and soil are one. We all need a little more nature in our lives. We all need to get away from the daily grind. We all need a little more fresh air.
Re-connecting with nature while living in an urban environment is an important part of your life. If it isn’t, then you might want to make it one. A study at the University of Washington concluded that the constant stimuli of city life is mentally exhausting. From the same paper:
Substantial research shows that natural scenes evoke positive emotions, facilitate cognitive functioning, and promote recovery from mental fatigue for people who are in good mental health. The experience of nature can also provide respite for those who experience short-term and chronic mental illness.
That’s good news for all of us. The study cites that spending time in nature has a positive effect on Alzheimer’s and Dementia in the elderly, ADD in children, and chronic stress and depression in adults. It’s also proven to make you more cognitive when you get back to work. Basically, we need to slow down every now and then.
If you’re still not convinced, it’s good to note that spending time outdoors has a great affect on your physical well-being, too. You don’t need an expensive gym membership when you can just go for a hike and use nature for keeping your body in shape. You can do pushups anywhere. And, if Instagram has proven anything, it’s that you can practice yoga wherever you want.
For years, the biggest obstacle to getting into nature for the city dweller has been simple access. Cities were built to control and funnel us to and from specific points in the least interesting, that is, most efficient way possible. Initial city-planners didn’t have time for green spaces. Cities were for workers to work. Nature was something that people would drive to. Gear up, put gas in the car.
Fortunately the tide has started to turn. Just a week ago, Los Angeles, America’s sprawling megalopolis, opened the Backbone Trail. The 67-mile trek runs through the Santa Monica mountains and is now officially the longest urban trail in the continental United States. It’s accessible by public transportation — just take the bus number 2 or grab a light rail or bus off Ventura Blvd.
Right now, the goal is for daily hikers to enjoy the Backbone Trail in sections. Eventually, the goal is to create NPS campsites (there’s currently only one) to allow for thru-hiking.
According to studies cited by National Geographic, teens only spend 10% of their time outdoors every day. For adults, that number is 5%. The average American spends more time in their car than they do outdoors. That’s just crazy. The same study concludes that just 15 minutes spent walking in a park lowers your stress hormone cortisol by 16%, your blood pressure by 2%, and your heart rate by 4%. Just 15 minutes.
More and more, people seem to sense this, and urban trail projects have already succeeded in Atlanta, New York, Seattle, and Anchorage. By bringing nature back into our cities, we’re also affording ourselves the opportunity to remember that we are part of massive ecosystem. Just because we’re in a city doesn’t mean we’re not still part of nature.
In Korea, a study was conducted by showing people images of cities and the outdoors while undergoing an MRI.
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. Maybe nature makes us nicer as well as calmer.
A similar study was done in Palo Alto amongst people who walked for 90 minutes in the city, and those who walked for the same amount of time in nature. Here’s what they found:
The nature walkers, but not the city walkers, showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain tied to depressive rumination—and from their own reports, the nature walkers beat themselves up less.
It’s all pretty intuitive: We get outside to unwind and we feel recharged and relaxed when we get back. Urban green spaces like the Backbone Trail help to make this all so much easier. Now the onus is on all of us to actually utilize them. We just have to make the time.
Some photos from city hikes around the country: