We live in unforgiving times. Work is all-consuming. Productivity is critical but, as work hours increase, results suffer. The modern professional works more hours, under greater demand, than ever before. We’re always connected, and what were supposed to be advancements to make life easier have simply allowed for greater expectations and more responsibility. The job never goes away. Stress, depression, and anxiety are as common as rush hour traffic, shortened deadlines, and that person in the office that is always taking the last cup of coffee but never making more – only adds to the list.
The stresses of the work week can create anxiety and feelings of sadness, depression and helplessness, which in turn weaken your immune system, raise your blood pressure, and create a burning need to balance, unplug and recharge. You have long hours during the week and family on the weekends, but maintaining a healthy work-life balance involves more than that. You have to get outside and be active. We’re not talking about quitting your job, selling all your stuff and living in your truck, sport-climbing by day and begging for burritos and craft beer by night. We’re talking balance – doing what you can do to be the best you.
You have two days every week to get centered and focused. Don’t waste them. Get outside and into nature. Research shows it helps you physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In fact, filling your weekends with outdoor adventure has been proven to make you more productive during the week. Consider it a project.
What being in nature does to us physically
We aren’t built to sit in front of screens all day, squinting at the latest projections, writing blog posts, and making sure to reply-all as we answer the latest emails. It’s actually killing us. Our eyes are going bad. Our backs hurt. Our muscles atrophy. Our bodies need to go outside and move. It’s biology.
Just being in nature has shown to reduce stress hormones, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and release muscle tension. But don’t stop there. Adding some sort of athletic or adventure activity, like running, hiking, or skiing, will work your muscles and connective tissue, keeping them active, fluid, and breathing.
Use it or lose it
Going outside forces us to move more. That’s the secret. The more active you are – the more you move – the better physical conditioning you will have. Hiking and backpacking build leg strength and core stability. Running and cycling build cardiovascular health, although neither can hold a candle to snowshoeing. Skiing is a killer total body workout that has the added benefit of the après ski. All of these activities are better than hitting the gym on your lunch break, spending 10 minutes on an elliptical and waiting for your turn on the lat pull-down machine.
What being in nature does to us emotionally
The outdoors is where we belong. Studies over the years have shown that even having a plant in your office lowers anxiety levels and stress. Imagine what being out in the forest for a day or two can do for your health. Researchers have found that people who spend time outside regularly as part of their lives have improved moods, feel less depressed, and describe having greater feelings of well-being and vitality.
That’s not surprising when you consider that we humans are actually genetically predisposed to be in nature. We are designed, biologically, to seek out water sources, trees for cover, and plants for food, so it’s perfectly natural to feel calm and peaceful when outdoors. It’s the Zen of the natural. Being outside allows you to disassociate with the stresses of your everyday life and focus instead on the world around you.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand better.” ~ Albert Einstein
Also consider the positive reinforcement of outdoor activities. Out in nature is where you can develop a hobby and a greater sense of self worth, hone skills you actually want to work on, and challenge yourself beyond trying to get get to work on time and avoiding that last donut. Getting to the top of the mountain, rocking that black diamond, or climbing your first 5.10 route will give you a sense of true accomplishment and a release of endorphins that can’t be matched in the average office setting.
What to do outside
This is the easy one, but also the hard one. Since hiking can be done pretty much anywhere, anytime, and with minimal equipment, it is also the easiest to skip. Don’t do it. Hiking allows you to quickly and effectively disassociate from the modern world. It is the quintessential self-powered activity. Find a trail and walk, clearing your mind, exploring silence, and expanding your awareness of life around you. Hiking will allow you to rediscover your inner voice. Listen to it. You might just solve some of the problems you’ve been working on.
Cycling is a low impact leg and lung buster. Getting on a bike, either road or mountain, can get you to out-of-the-way places you don’t normally see and does wonders for your heart. Being on a bike, more than many other activities, can be meditative with the pace of your pedaling, the hum of the gears, and the rhythm of your breathing. And if zen is your goal, learning even the most basic bike maintenance and mechanics will shift your focus and thrill your inner perfectionist.
It sounds cliché, but there is something to losing yourself. Camping is the ultimate priority reallocation activity. Heading out for a weekend of camping forces you to totally unplug and solve radically different types of problems. When camping, you are reminded of simple priorities, like shelter, heat, and nourishment. Get in tune with the rhythms of nature and chances are you’ll sleep better and develop a greater sense of perspective and awe, which has been proven to increase happiness and creativity.