Five Ways to Connect to Nature in 2018

merry chrismtas panaromic

Plott Balsam Mountain Range (North Carolina)

The new year is a fantastic time to rediscover how being in nature can help reduce stress and increase effectiveness. You do not have to make a large commitment of time, just block out some space in your schedule. Here are a few tips that I use to help stay connected to nature.

Develop a Plan Focused on Doing Things You Love

I like to spend time in nature by hiking, cycling, mountain biking, and kayaking, so I set goals in each of these areas to make sure I stay on track. It helps my physical fitness, and also my mental fitness. It is not about the numbers, but that helps me stay motivated. I had 1,300 miles in 2017, so I am aiming for 1,500 in 2018. My body, mind and spirit will thank me for every extra mile.

waterrock knob trail 2017

Sunset over Great Smoky Mountains National Park as seen from Waterrock Knob Trail (NC)

 

Make Room for Silence

We live in a noisy world. One way to escape the stress that this causes is to allow the silence available in nature to capture your attention. This is not only calming but serves to help restore your attention capacities. Find quiet places to go on a lunch break or for an after work stroll. When you have time for more extended trips, find places that are not near areas with lots of human created noises (eg, roads, airports, neighborhoods).

Reflect While You Are in Nature

Getting away from the things that cause stress and spending time in nature is the perfect setting to reflect. Bring a journal and write about whatever is on your mind. Try writing with your non-dominate hand to help your mind slow down. Draw the things you see in nature. These simple approaches to reflection can help you relax.

Volunteer

There are numerous volunteer opportunities that can get you out in nature more. Perhaps there is a community garden in your area, or a trail maintenance and hiking club such as the Carolina Mountain Club in Asheville, NC. These are great ways to help the environment and make new friends.

Take a Social Media Fast

Social media diverts attention. When you are in nature stop thinking about what pictures you want to take to share on social media. Let yourself become immersed in the experience. You will remember much more about the things you saw during a hike if you are not constantly thinking about what you want to photograph.

Enjoy the new year and get outside as much as you can. There is bountiful research showing that time in nature truly does wonders for your mind, body and spirit.

I hope to see you out on the trail or paddling sometime soon!

Advertisements

Environmental Neuroscientists Determine Hiking Makes You Smarter!

New research by environmental neuroscientists at the University of Utah and the University of Kansas indicates that hiking does more than just improve your health, it also makes you smarter. This according to an article in the May issue of Backpacker Magazine. The researchers involved in this study hypothesize that exposure to nature causes significant, measurable changes to the brain. Changes that allow clearer thinking, increased ability to focus, while also allowing the opportunity to function at one’s highest cognitive ability.

Environmental neuroscience is an evolving field within environmental psychology which focuses on how our surroundings affect the way our brains work. David Strayer, Ph.D, Paul Atchley and Ruth Ann Atchley are the scientists coordinating this research. The research study involved a pre-nature experience and fourth day in nature experience word association test utilizing adult Outward Bound participants. Results indicated a 50% increase in creative thought! The authors also suggest that the optimum amount of time in nature to achieve the most restoration is approximately three days. After three days, no additional restorative benefits will be obtained.

This links to a research study I initiated last week on the restorative benefits of spending time in nature that focuses on how spending time in nature impacts psychological well-being and stress levels. Participants in my study are completing a pre-nature experience and post-nature experience survey assessing their psychological well-being. We are also collecting participant heart rate and blood pressure readings to determine how spending time in nature is associated with stress levels. If you are interested in learning more about the research study please send me a message.

If spending time in nature does impact cognitive functioning this has implications that touch many fields, including human resource development (HRD). If employees can go out on nature hikes and return smarter, imagine the impact this could have on organizational performance. It is time for organizations to embrace what I refer to as “ECO-HRD”. This is an approach to employee development that utilizes time in nature to improve employee performance, well-being, and yes, intelligence.

Experiential professional /personal development programs on utilizing nature for improved health, self reflection & leadership development

Many people are disconnected from the natural environment and do not realize the restorative impact that spending time in nature has on health. I facilitate experiential learning programs for professional and personal development designed to help participants utilize the restorative benefits of nature for improved health, self reflection and leadership development.  I completed my doctorate in 2010 at North Carolina State University with my dissertation research focusing on the restorative benefits of spending time in nature.

Programs I have developed include a two day retreat for the Chaplains Residency Program at Carolinas Medical Center; and continuing education programs for Carolinas Medical Center employees and the community, focused on utilizing nature to reduce stress. I also created a three semester hour course on Nature, Environment, and Human Health that I started teaching last fall. Contact me by email if you would like additional information about developing a program for your group or organization.

Soft Fascination Allows The Mind To Wander in a Noisy, Urban World

Many people now experience physical and psychological health issues related to the stress, fatigue and pollution associated with living and working in urban environments. In a previous post I explored the concept of escaping these environments to spend time in more restorative natural environments. A key component of natural environments that encourages restoration is the presence of fascinating stimuli (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Something that is fascinating is a stimulus that initiates the use of involuntary attention, or attention that requires no effort.  The presence of fascinating components of the environment are important because they attract us, and keep us from becoming bored, while allowing functioning without the use of directed, or voluntary attention. Fascinating components of a natural environment include bird songs; the sound of wind blowing through the trees; clouds; a sunrise or sunset; or a flowing stream or river. 

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

These elements are not random, but are all connected to the natural environment, thus supporting one another, and capturing attention. Fascination experienced in nature is referred to as soft fascination (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). This is in contrast to hard fascination (e.g. sporting events, watching TV, etc) that demand full attention, not allowing for other thinking, including reflection. Environments that encourage soft fascination have

involuntary attention aspects that are of a mild strength while also having an aesthetic component. “Soft fascination may be a mixture of fascination and pleasure such that any lack of clarity an individual may be experiencing is not necessarily blotted out by distraction, but rendered substantially less painful” (Kaplan & Kaplan, p. 192). This allows the individuals to experience fascinating environment while also allowing for the exploration of other thoughts, as well as reflection. This allows the mind to wander, and presents opportunities to make mental connections to what previously had been disconnected ideas or material. Experiencing environments that

Fire pink (Silene virginica) wildflower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Fire pink (Silene virginica) wildflower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

encourage soft fascination while hiking provides opportunities to think through situations and make decisions; to reflect on prior experiences and make sense of them; and to develop ideas that can be implemented in the workplace or in personal life. Making time to let your mind wander is time well invested.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Escape!

Acadia National Park, Maine (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Have you found yourself seeking to escape the stress, noise and pollution of your everyday environment, if only for a few minutes? Places that are available to escape to are becoming harder to find as the world’s population continues to increase; combined with the fact that more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in an urban environment.

Kaplan & Kaplan (1989) described escape as “an absence of some aspect of life that is ordinarily present, and presumably not always preferred” (p. 183). They describe three types of escape: 1) Escaping distraction; 2) escaping work; 3) escaping mental effort.

Escaping distraction can be seeking relief from information overload. Modern urban living often provides constant demands on attention from cell phones, email, traffic, everyone needing something, now! These constant demands on attention, fatigue directed attention capacities. One of the best ways to heal the ability to focus attention is to spend time in nature, which has few demands to focus on.

Escaping work can involve getting away to a place that is removed from all reminders of the job. Spending time hiking in a wilderness environment, far from the pressures of the job, may offer time to gain a fresh perspective on issues in the workplace. Often this provides opportunities to reflect on past work and life experiences.

Another type of escape that Kaplan et al. describe is from mental effort. The opportunity to rest the mind and truly relax is a primary intention many of us have when planning vacations.

Kaplan et al. point out that what one escapes to may be more important than what one is escaping from. With increased urbanization, another form of escape may be evolving: escape from pollution. Pollution can be in the form noise, smog, or more direct environmental pollution to the land. With more than 79% of the U.S. population now living in urban environments, exposure to these types of pollution are proliferating. Combined with this, many people have now become disconnected to nature because they are relying more on technology and live in urban settings that have few places to enjoy nature. As a result, fewer people now understand the healing benefits that time in nature offers. Escaping to the living room to watch TV non-stop, or playing video games, does not offer the same restorative benefit.

Venturing out to spend time in nature may take more effort than lounging at home in front of the TV, or exercising using the Wi, but the psychological restoration, and fitness benefits offered by nature are worth the investment.

The symptoms of a society that is experiencing information overload and failing to take time for restoration are everywhere: the number of auto accidents that are a result of people texting, or talking on a cell phone; obesity that is a result, in part, of having too many demands on time, and too few opportunities to exercise; and the inability to concentrate because there are so many things to focus on.

There is a prescription for this that has no known side effects: spending time in nature. The use of nature for human resource development in organizations offers a new and creative approach to helping employees cope with the stress of work.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Restorative Benefits of Hiking and its Relationship to Job Satisfaction

Hiker Bill Boydston on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

The November/December Issue of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy magazine Journeys includes an article in which I review the results of the study I completed earlier this year for my dissertation at North Carolina State University on the restorative benefits of hiking in wilderness solitude and its relationship to job satisfaction.

Read the article via this link (scroll to page 3):   http://www.appalachiantrail.org/docs/atj/2011/04/15/atj-november-december-2010.pdf

Welcome to HikingResearch.com!

HikingResearch.com is for people who love to hike, and want to learn more about the restorative benefits of  spending time in nature, and the impact it has on human health.

I’m Mark Ellison, and I earned my doctorate from North Carolina State University, with my dissertation research focusing on the restorative benefits of hiking in wilderness solitude and the relationship to  job satisfaction. This was the first research on the restorative benefits of hiking and the relationship to the workplace.

This site will have links to research on hiking and articles related to hiking, nature, and human health.