Did you know spending time in nature can improve your brain function, reduce stress, keep you fit, give you a thrill and help protect threatened landscapes and wildlife? It’s true! Read on, then start dreaming about the nature adventures you’d like to glean these benefits from.
I spent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles this year, surrounded by a sea of asphalt and traffic that sprawls for hundreds of square miles. Shuttling between relatives and friends on the maze of 14-lane freeways, I soon felt spiritually exhausted by the visual din of billboards, power lines, parking lots, storefronts, neon signs and cars blowing past at 80 mph.
Escaping the urban crush
I found an oasis amid my urban immersion, however: a 3-mile stretch of wild beach that lies between the suburbs of Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach.
The quiet strip of sand and coastal cliffs is part of Crystal Cove State Park, a rare tract of 2400 acres of undeveloped land surrounded by the O.C. (that’s Orange County, for those who didn’t follow the TV show about the lives of wealthy teens from Newport Beach). Hikers, mountain bikers, beach walkers and divers frequent its serene environs, where butterflies dance in wooded canyons and sandpipers poke among the tidepools.
As soon as I started walking on the sand, eluding the foamy edges of the waves as the surf slid toward shore, I felt a peace wash over me. It was as if the sea was rhythmically rinsing away the tension that had built up as I’d hunched over the steering wheel for the previous few days. I couldn’t hear the cars along the Coast Highway above, nor could I see the housing developments atop the hills – the bluffs were a barrier to everything but this slice of the natural world underfoot.
Prescription: A dose of nature
Two hours at Crystal Cove gave me the solace and sustenance I needed to walk back to the parking lot and face the intensity of SoCal sprawl once more. It turns out that there’s a lot of scientific research that supports what I experienced: Nature is good for us, in all kinds of ways.
Though people have lived in close harmony with the land for millennia, a majority of the world’s people now reside in cities for the first time in human history. And we’re spending less time outside than ever before: the average American child is in front of a screen for 7-1/2 hours a day, and many adults aren’t far behind. Our loss of connection to the natural world is taking a toll on our bodies, our psyches and our social relations.
Richard Louv tracks those changes in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. But research tells us that regular doses of nature can alter these trends. While a daily walk through a neighborhood park can help, an extended escape in the natural world has profound benefits.
Why make your next vacation a nature adventure?
1) NATURE IS GOOD FOR OUR BRAINS
Time in nature enhances our mental functioning, helping us focus and remember better. A 2009 Boston Globe article tracked studies that demonstrate that hospital patients recover faster when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard rather than concrete. Scientists theorize that even such fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance by providing a mental break from the cognitive processing demands of urban environments.
City dwellers, who are constantly impacted by visual and aural noise, find it harder to concentrate and are more prone to irritable moods and impulsive behavior. Stephen Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, hypothesized that immersion in nature might have a restorative effect. He observed that children with attention-deficit disorder, for instance, have fewer behavior problems and are better able to focus on tasks when they are surrounded by trees and animals. Even looking at a picture of a natural setting can improve attention and memory.
2) NATURE HELPS US COPE WITH STRESS
Mirroring the concerns of the Children & Nature Network, a British report warns that the mental health of 21st-century children is at risk because they are missing out on the exposure to the natural world enjoyed by past generations. The report’s author, Dr. William Bird, health adviser to Natural England, has compiled evidence that people are healthier and better adjusted if they get out into the countryside, parks or gardens. Bird says studies show that people deprived of contact with nature are at greater risk of depression and anxiety, while stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces. An active family nature vacation (ideally without the distractions of mobile electronica) can reconnect parents and children, soothe frayed nerves and help everyone relax.
3) TIME IN NATURE KEEPS US FIT
Typically, when people are enjoying nature, they are moving – climbing peaks, paddling kayaks, walking dogs. As we’ve come to spend less time outdoors, we’ve gotten heavier as a result. Our society faces a whole host of ills dubbed “diseases of indoor living,” which often accompany obesity: Type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, as well as vitamin D deficiency, osteoporosis, myopia, depression and rising levels of ADD.
Even the government sees the social advantages of getting people back to nature. The president’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative aims to protect natural resources and counter sedentary lifestyles by reacquainting Americans with the farms, ranches, rivers, forests, national and local parks, fishing holes and beaches that provide opportunities for people to stay active and healthy. The project complements Michelle Obama’s fight against childhood obesity and her Let’s Move Outside initiative. A key aim of both programs is to turn our public lands into public health resources, where the benefits go beyond just getting people to exercise.
4) NATURE OFFERS AUTHENTIC ADVENTURE AND DISCOVERY
When my kids were little, we took a trip to Orlando. There was the requisite visit to Disney World, of course, but we also spent a day at Wekiwa Springs State Park where we rented a canoe and paddled among alligators, turtles and herons beneath gauzy curtains of Spanish moss. I remember asking my son, then 7, which he liked better – Disney World or our canoe ride. Expecting him to give an immediate nod to the Magic Kingdom, he instead paused, pondered and said, “Hmmm…I can’t say!” Even then, he was captivated by the authenticity in our nature experience, feeling a sense of wonder that was tapped even more profoundly when our family visited the Galapagos in 2008 and Churchill last year. My kids were positively enchanted as they swam with sea lions and snorkeled with penguins and turtles, then came face to face with polar bears on the Canadian tundra (through the protective glass of our Polar Rover window!).
Childlike wonder isn’t just the province of children when it comes to nature adventures. I will never forget how moved I was to stand among millions of monarch butterflies fluttering overhead, preparing to leave their winter home in Mexico and migrate northward. Or to hear the nocturnal sounds of the rainforest in the deep Amazon night, and listen to the thunder-crack of an iceberg calving off a tidewater glacier in Alaska. Or to see the sky-piercing summits of the Himalayas while trekking in Nepal. When it comes to entertainment, theme parks pale next to nature’s impressive displays.
Travelers unaccustomed to spending time in nature can be timid – just 5% of visitors to Grand Canyon National Park ever venture below the rim despite many well-maintained trails. That’s why a trip led by a seasoned guide can be just the ticket. Nat Hab’s Expedition Leaders are gifted at unveiling adventure while assuring guests’ safety and comfort no matter how remote the destination.
5) THE NATURAL WORLD IS DISAPPEARING — SEE IT WHILE YOU CAN
Not to leave you on a down note, but the fact is, many of the planet’s most remarkable natural places are threatened or being changed forever by development, deforestation, climate change, pollution and population pressures. The time to see what’s left is now. More than 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been cut down. Glacier National Park’s namesake ice is disappearing. Endemic lemurs in Madagascar – found nowhere else on earth – are the target of poachers or the casualty of illegal logging.
The good news, though, is that responsible eco-tourism can help save places and creatures like these. When countries and communities find that there’s more economic value in protecting their environment and wildlife for visitors to enjoy, there is the necessary incentive to do so. Africa’s mountain gorillas would possibly be extinct today if it weren’t for people’s desire to see them in the wild, alongside the efforts of international conservation groups to save them.
All kinds of compendia have been published that catalog the earth’s most vulnerable natural places. Check out lists like Newsweek’s 100 Endangered Places and How to Save Them , Mother Nature Network’s 10 Places to Visit Before They Vanish, Frommer’s 500 Places to See Before They Disappear, and the UN’s list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.
Nat Hab offers a slate of adventures that immerse nature lovers in many of these treasured realms. See pandas in China, scout for endangered tigers in India, track wolves in Yellowstone, follow the Migration on the Serengeti Plains, snorkel over the Belize barrier reef. Nature beckons, and your task is to figure out where in our wonderful world you want to go.
P.S. Next time I go to California, I plan to leave the freeways behind in favor of tall trees and big mountains — the way this Wild California trip does.