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How To Enjoy National Parks Responsibly: The value of spending time outdoors

3 months, 3 weeks ago

2799  0
Posted on Apr 15, 2021, 1 p.m.

When was the last time that you enjoyed the great outdoors? Spending at least 2 hours a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing according to a study published in Nature Scientific Reports. 

Going outside and getting some fresh air makes us feel better – we all know it. The time we spend outside, relaxing or exercising, is often a welcomed relief from daily stresses. We arrive back at home feeling refreshed.

During the lockdowns, you may have felt the benefits of spending time outdoors. Perhaps you want to encourage your whole family to enjoy nature more. This guide will explore the value of spending time outdoors in US national parks – including a look at why we feel so good outside, why US national parks are some of the most amazing outdoor spaces, and how to enjoy them safely.

After all, the US is home to some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. The parks are the country’s treasures. From Yosemite’s mountains and ancient sequoia trees to Acadia’s rocky headlands along the Atlantic coastline, US national parks are loved by locals and feature on the bucket lists of many travelers. They are some of the most breathtaking places to spend time outdoors.

The Impact of COVID-19

While we have become somewhat used to the challenges coronavirus has thrown at us, the initial impact of a global pandemic was overwhelming. Our daily lives were overhauled, with families working and learning from home, people’s travel plans halted and many states in lockdown. Households were restricted in terms of what they could do, and activities allowed to continue were under new social distancing guidelines.

But even in states with the strictest lockdown rules, where people were asked to remain indoors except for essential activities, the importance of going outdoors was emphasized. Walking, running, hiking and cycling, while practicing safe social distancing, were seen as essential activities. And we all began to see why. When you have to spend a significant amount of time indoors, you start to value the time you get to spend in nature.

Not only does spending time outside often encourage exercise, something we all needed to keep up during lockdown, but it can also be relaxing. Forbes also spoke to Dr. Keith Tidball, Ph.D., and author of Greening in the Red Zone, who believes part of the reason that going outside is such a good fit for the current situation is because the connection to nature fulfills a deep evolutionary need.

Dr. Keith Tidball Ph.D. told Forbes:

"We spent thousands and thousands of years among the rest of nature, that’s how we were designed, It’s only in the last couple hundred years that we’ve become separate from it. But we’re compelled to affiliate with nature, which comes to the fore with urgency in times of crisis, because we associate nature with the healing aspects of hope and optimism."

Dr. Sadiya Muqueeth, DrPh, MPH, and Director of Community Health at The Trust for Public Land told Forbes:

"In this time of crisis, we are seeing people across the country visit their parks to seek out exercise, community and healing"

Indeed, an unexpected consequence of the pandemic for many has been a renewed or reinforced connection with nature. Something dubbed “quarantine fatigue” began to set in, where people were growing increasingly restless, we started to venture out more frequently – and further from home.

The benefits of time outdoors

The best thing about spending time outdoors is that almost anyone can reap the rewards. It’s accessible. And the study which proved a two-hour dose of nature a week significantly boosts health and wellbeing confirms that you don’t need to exercise to see the benefits. You can simply sit and enjoy the peace.

Dr. Mathew White, of the University of Exeter Medical School who led the study, said:

“What really amazed us was this was true for just about every group we could think of."

The benefits were the same for both young and old, wealthy and poor, and urban and rural people, as well as those with long-term illnesses and disabilities. Spending time outside is pretty much good for everyone – regardless of whether you go to a city park, the beach or to the woods. 

With the average American spending 87% of their time indoors, 6% of it in a car and just 7% of their life outdoors, there’s a lot to be said about emphasizing the benefits of time outside. You could expect to experience any of the following benefits:

  • Improved mood
  • Reduced stress or anxiety
  • Increase in calmness and relaxation
  • Encouragement to be more active
  • Improvement in physical health
  • New connections


But what’s the science behind this? Let’s take a look at some of the more detailed studies into spending time outside:

Japanese forest bathing

Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is any mindful time spent under and around trees for health and wellbeing purposes. The benefits, including research that it reduces blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, and improves concentration and memory, are so great that many people believe it should be prescribed by doctors to combat stress – similar to how the Japanese government has incorporated it into the country’s health program.

Exposure to nature

Urban populations may feel limited in terms of what nature or outside space they can access. But studies have found that greater nature exposure – including nature visible from the home and the accessibility of nature in your area – is associated with health benefits. Hearing bird song, seeing the trees sway in the wind from your window, watching the sunrise – it’s all exposure to nature. Don’t feel deflated if you live in an urban area. Once you start looking around, you will find nature and be able to reap the benefits.

A rise in vitamin D levels

Most vitamins are necessary but don’t have disease-fighting powers. Vitamin D could be the exception. According to Harvard, studies have shown it may have protective effects against everything from osteoporosis to cancer, depression, heart attacks, and stroke. And to get enough vitamin D, all you need is to get outside a few times a week and expose your arms and legs for 10 to 15 minutes. Of course, it has to be sunny and you should always use sunscreen when you’re outside for prolonged periods of time.

Ecotherapy

A type of therapeutic treatment which involves doing outdoor activities in nature, ecotherapy is used to support good mental wellbeing. It always takes place in a green environment and focuses on exploring and appreciating the natural world. Many advocates say it’s improved their mental health and increased their confidence.

The benefits of exercise

While the goal of being outside doesn’t have to be exercise, even a gentle walk to a bench is better than sitting in front of a screen. The more you can get moving, the more you’re replacing your inactive pursuits with active ones. And physical exercise has been shown to:

  • Keep your thinking, learning, and judgment skills sharp
  • Reduce your risk of depression and anxiety and help you sleep better
  • Lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol levels
  • Reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • Slow the loss of bone density that comes with age
  • Help with arthritis and other rheumatic conditions affecting the joints
  • Play a critical role in maintaining a healthy body weight, losing excess body weight, or maintaining successful weight loss



Spending your time responsibly

The time you spend in national parks should only be beneficial. These are places of real beauty that have been around for centuries - and they should remain around for future generations. When you visit, you have a role to play. 

Respecting the area and being a responsible visitor

Please don’t litter. It’s likely you’ll have heard of the ‘leave no trace” principle. While most of us don’t intend to harm our surroundings, spending time in the great outdoors can impact the immediate environment. Litter, invasive species, habituated wildlife, trail erosion, and polluted water sources – these are all problems that can occur in national parks as a result of ill-informed visitors.

That’s why the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace are so important. They provide the information and instructions necessary to avoid potentially harmful behaviors. Although its roots are in backcountry settings, the principles are a framework for anyone visiting the outdoors – anywhere. They’re widely known, but the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics continually examines, evaluates, and reshapes the principles for modern life.

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

Hiking health and safety

43% of Americans aged 13+ said they'd be doing more outdoor activities because of COVID-19 social distancing rules - the most popular being hiking. Whether you’re a regular hiker or are trying to fight cabin fever, it’s worth reminding yourself of what you need to take.

The ‘ten essentials’ is a list originally assembled back in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers. The list was designed to equip people with the tools they needed to safely spend a night (or more) outside and be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors. It’s since been updated with modern items that could be essential to your survival. These are:

Ten Essentials List

  1. Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger
  2. Headlamp and extra batteries
  3. Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen
  4. First aid, including foot care and insect repellent (as needed)
  5. Knife, plus a gear repair kit
  6. Fire: matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove
  7. Shelter: carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy)
  8. Extra food: beyond the minimum expectation
  9. Extra water: beyond the minimum expectation
  10. Extra clothes: beyond the minimum expectation

Obviously, you probably won’t need all of this for a day hike. The list can be tailored to the type of trip you’re taking, accounting for factors like weather, difficulty, duration, and distance from help. But it’s a good point of reference to check.

There are risk factors for all hikers to consider, even if they’re spending a small amount of time in national parks:

  • Dehydration
  • Altitude sickness
  • Ticks
  • Water Safety
  • Falling Hazards
  • Weather

Whatever your motivations are for heading outside, there’s something about nature that is contagious. Once you start feeling the benefits, you’ll be back for more.

This is an adaptation of a longer and more informative article, for even more helpful tips and insights into popular American National Parks, including NPS data, an interactive map, the importance of conserving national parks, defending wildlife, protecting natural wonders, restoring waters, preserving antiquity, responsible tourism, a listing of most visited national parks, the 7 principles of leave no trace, camping and campfire safety, tips on being aware of wildlife, food storage, as well as hiking and water safety please visit the original full article by clicking here

The original in-depth guide highlights how national parks can help you to get enough exercise, spending time outdoors, and contains a lot of great information such as: 

  • How visiting national parks can help improve your physical and mental wellbeing during the pandemic.
  • That the US’s 85 million acres of protected land are still open to the public and that they’re the perfect places to exercise safely.
  • How being outside and exercising can reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but it can also help to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Ways that you can be a responsible visitor and minimize the environmental impact of your visit. With nearly 50 million visitors each year, the national parks need to stay beautiful for everyone.

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.

Materials provided by:

Content may be edited for style and length.

This article is not intended to provide medical diagnosis, advice, treatment, or endorsement.

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