Quarantining Outdoors: The Case for Nature During (and After) a Pandemic

By C2ST Staff

An afternoon picnic in a park, a morning walk to hear the birds chirping, a fresh breeze coming off the lakefront. What do these three things have in common? Besides being quite pleasant, they all take place outside. Outdoor activities have been anxiety-inducing for some in the past year but are considered by health care professionals to be immensely important for our well-being.

There is substantial research that supports the health benefits of spending time outside. Experts have linked time in nature to reduced risk of health concerns such as diabetes, depression, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a large effect on our mental health. Regularly spending time outside is a fantastic remedy for stress and anxiety. Publications from around the world highlight the importance of physical activity during the pandemic, citing safe practices outdoors as essential for coping with these stressors. In one study conducted at the University of Chicago, researchers found that planting 10 trees on a city block made residents in Toronto feel as healthy as a $10,000 raise, or being seven years younger might.

Children can’t always tell us how healthy they feel–or comprehend $10,000, for that matter–but there are numerous benefits for them as well. Research has shown that children who regularly spend time in nature have increased cognitive abilities, attention spans, creativity, and problem-solving skills. We can all use a little bit of nature, and even 30-minutes at a time can make a huge difference! The vaccines might not yet be approved for children, but following CDC guidelines is a sure way to keep kids safe outside.

One advantage to the outdoors that the indoors can’t provide is space, lots and lots of space! It’s easier–and safer–to socially distance outdoors. Chicago has hundreds of parks all over the city, in every neighborhood. If one park looks too busy, there’s bound to be another nearby. Make sure you’re following Chicago’s health and safety protocols so you can safely enjoy the great outdoors.

Anyone who’s outside is constantly learning. Don’t feel like you need to be an expert about physical fitness or a trained naturalist to take advantage of the outdoors. Everyone can enjoy spending time in nature, and there is bound to be one strategy that connects with you.

If you are unsure of how to get started enjoying the mental and physical benefits of being outdoors, try a practice commonly referred to as a “sit spot”: go outside, find a comfortable place to sit and try closing your eyes for just 30 seconds while you use your other senses. What do you hear? Cars, maybe, and people, too; but that is probably not all. Birds chirping and wind rustling the leaves on the trees, maybe a dog barking in the distance. Take in a deep breath through your nose and smell your surroundings. You might smell some tasty food, but perhaps you smell fresh rain or blooming flowers. Keep practicing and you’ll get better at blocking out the city’s noises. Visit parks you’ve never been to before and see how they affect your senses differently.

Technology and nature are not always synonymous, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use tech to enjoy the outdoors! Nature lovers can enhance their experience with apps. There are many options whether you’re interested in identifying animal tracks, birds, or the plants around you. Anyone can become an expert, or at least comfortable with what’s around, with a little exploration and research. Apps like Seek by iNaturalist or Merlin Bird ID even allow you to be part of the science!

Remember that “nature” doesn’t have to be a big park or wide-open green space. Those are nice and they look beautiful, but they may not be accessible every day. Your backyard is nature; your neighborhood is nature. A quick walk down the street affords you all of the benefits listed above, and that’s accessible every day. A patio, balcony or rooftop can allow you to spend time in nature from the comfort of your home.

If there’s one thing we have all learned during the pandemic, it’s that you have to take care of yourself, but you don’t have to do it alone. Let mother earth help you–she has been caring for herself for 4.5 billion years and she’s pretty good at it. Science supports spending time outdoors for our mental and physical well-being. As Chicago continues to open up it makes more and more sense to take advantage of our many green spaces. It’s been a difficult, often isolating, year, but as author and environmentalist Wendell Berry said, “The earth is what we all have in common,” so let’s celebrate that by getting outside and appreciating what lives beyond our walls.

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