Exponentially Boost the Wellness Benefits of Time in Nature with Mindfulness
Stress reduction through contact with nature is well established by a large body of research. A 90 minute walk in nature has been shown to help combat depression and can even lower activity in the part of the brain linked to negative rumination. Research also tells us that time in nature restores mental fatigue. It gives us a chance to be in awe and recognize we’re a small part of an astonishingly large universe. Time in nature connects us to the places we visit and creates a greater appreciation for our environment.
However, we can exponentially boost the wellness benefits of time in nature when we also practice mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction clinic at the University of Michigan, explains that mindfulness is simply “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” So how does it work? How can purposefully paying attention relieve stress? Practicing mindfulness helps us to enhance self-regulation.
Self-regulation is our ability to control our behavior, emotions, and thoughts in pursuit of a goal; like calming down when we’re upset or going to the gym when we don’t want to. According to research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, mindfulness can enhance our ability to self-regulate by increasing the cognitive resources required for the process. When we have experiences rooted in a present moment focus (like a sunrise hike), we can restore our attention and activate greater emotional, and behavioral self-regulation.
This month I shared the sunrise on South Mountain in Phoenix with 15 guests visiting from all over the world. We hit the trails early to witness the magic of morning in the desert. For an hour and a half we ditched the digital noise and escaped to the natural world to watch the sun spread its warmth over the valley. Keep reading to discover the five tips we used to turn a sunrise hike into a healing experience.
1. Start Early
When we start early, we have time; time to truly see, listen, and enjoy. It’s quiet and there’s no rush. On the trail, the wildlife is waking, looking for breakfast. If you sit, look, and listen you just might realize you’re sharing space with them. Don’t forget to look up. Notice you’re starting with the moon over head. Before the sun is up the sky will turn a thousand different colors for you. A sunrise hike isn’t just about those few magic moments when the sun beams crawl into view. When we start early we can enjoy the whole show and watch the entire mountain come to life.
My guests from Minnesota started early and left the kids at the Air BNB for a little girl’s morning out. Because we started early, we enjoyed a whole desert adventure wrapped up in a single morning. We climbed the ridgeline for a challenge then cruised the canyon looking for purple sage. We scrambled up a rock wall to pose for photos and sat with quails and roadrunners as they grazed on the hill. If waking early is a challenge, remind yourself that getting out of bed will be the toughest part. It will only get amazing from there.
2. Ditch the Digital Noise
Since the idea is to pay attention to the moment you’re actually in, consider the role you want electronic devices to play in your healing experience. Do you want to put your phone on silent or vibrate? If you decide to use your phone for photos, perhaps you can make a plan to review the photos when you’re back at home. Whatever you decide about including electronics, recognize that you’ve already given yourself this time, and there’s nothing else you SHOULD be doing. So phone calls and emails can wait.
3. Find a High Point
An awe inspiring view takes a little work. Find a hill that will challenges you and use your excitement for the big show as a motivator to get to the top. As you climb recognize that you’re improving your health and fighting disease. Hiking works your calves, hamstrings, quads and core while increasing your cardiovascular conditioning.
South Mountain provides tons of interconnected trails, so we always have the option of a light, moderate, or intense hiking route. When my guest Julie, from Michigan, chose the intense route, a wide smile grew across my face. Not only was I looking forward to the high-intensity intervals we were about to enjoy, I was excited about the views we would encounter on this route.
4. Get Comfortable
Recognize that you’re not a visitor; you’re part of nature and this is where you’re supposed to be. We are genetically programmed to find nature pleasant. That’s why it feels so right to be here. Research has shown that being in nature can reduce anger and stress. Time in nature can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension; it can also reduce the production of stress hormones.
On a recent sunrise hike, my guest Rachel and I climbed to our highest point so quickly that we had several moments of darkness before the main event began. While we waited for the sun to come over the Superstition Wilderness in the east we made friends with a local who was filming the sunrise. As bright beams of sunlight poured over the mountains to our east we chatted about how special this place was to us. We shared our favorite trails and told stories of the awesome animal encounters we’ve had. We took in deep breaths of awe and exhaled peace knowing this was where we belonged.
5. Be Observant
To take full advantage of all that nature has to offer we must engage the senses and ask questions. Crush a leaf between your fingers to see if you can smell it. Look for something you’ve never seen. Touch something that looks interesting; nature makes some amazingly intricate patterns. Author and naturalist John Muir said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” In this way, experiencing the interconnectedness of nature makes our mind’s curiosity go viral. It’s not having the answers that’s important, but rather the practice of letting your mind loose to wonder.
One of my favorite way to engage my guest’s sense of smell is to ask if they have a scent that reminds them of home. I love hearing the answers but it also allows me to introduce them to the scent that reminds me of home – the creosote bush. It’s a drought resistant, durable plant; so it grows everywhere in the desert that isn’t developed. It also has a strong essential oil that’s released when it rains. The creosote is what we smell when we recognize that desert rain scent. It’s a scent that always reminds me of home.
Ok, now you know combining mindfulness with time in nature can enhance self-regulation and stress relief. Your challenge: Use what you learned to turn your next sunrise hike into a healing experience. Get outside and put it to the test.
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Gawande R, To MN, Pine E, Griswold T, Creedon TB, Brunel A, Lozada A, Loucks EB, Schuman-Olivier Z. Mindfulness Training Enhances Self-Regulation and Facilitates Health Behavior Change for Primary Care Patients: a Randomized Controlled Trial. J Gen Intern Med. 2019 Feb;34(2):293-302. doi: 10.1007/s11606-018-4739-5. Epub 2018 Dec 3. PMID: 30511291; PMCID: PMC6374253.