As a child, legendary mountaineer Conrad Anker suffered from ADHD.
“Second grade was a challenge,” Anker says. “Everything in the world screaming for attention and I didn’t know how to prioritize it.”
Rather than turn to pills, Anker’s parents cut sugar out of his diet. And they sent him outside. That decision helped set him on a trajectory of becoming one of the best mountain climbers in the world. Over his 57 years, the father of three has pushed the frontiers of alpinism from Antarctica to the Himalaya, pioneering challenging routes in some of the most obscure places on the planet. Mountains are Anker’s livelihood, yet he still reveres nature as more than his office. It’s his salve and sanctuary.
“I spent plenty of time outdoors as a kid,” Anker says. “It was built into me at a young age to go to that. There’s an obvious benefit to getting outdoors for just a little bit each day.”
Nature helps soothe stress and anxiety, a blossoming field of research shows. Yet the coronavirus pandemic has stripped access to wild places from nearly everyone. But you don’t have to climb a mountain, lounge on an exotic tropical beach, or head into the heart of a forest to reap nature’s medicine. Science suggests that simply getting outside — even if just for a few minutes a day — can boost mental health.
Spending as little as 10 minutes a day outside provides a positive and significant impact on the mental health of university students, according to a scoping systematic review. Small doses of nature — taking short walks in an urban canyon or even sitting in a green space — can bring substantial benefits to mental outlook, the results found. Co-author Donald Rakow, an associate professor in the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University, claims that those benefits can apply to the general population, not just college students.
“Part of the message we’re trying to share is that you don’t have to have a great deal of time to have a positive nature experience,” Rakow says. “These findings absolutely apply to people both younger and older than college-aged. And most of the research finds that one does not have to be in a pristine forest in order to derive the benefits of nature.”
The Pandemic Paradox
In a non-pandemic world, Anker would be gearing up for expeditions and talks on behalf of his primary sponsor, The North Face, as well as the non-profit organizations for which he sits on the board: Protect Our Winters, The American Himalayan Foundation, and the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. USA Climbing had asked him to give a presentation about the history of climbing in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The future of his work — and the existential purpose of his work — remains up in the air. It weighs on him.
“Climbing is my avocation and vocation,” Anker says. “It’s all wrapped into one. And now it’s being turned on its head. Climbing is superfluous. It’s selfish. Right now is about not getting hurt. Climbing puts people at risk. The value people place on climbing is different. That makes things problematic.”
Anker’s worries transcend himself. He fears for the Sherpas he works with at The American Himalayan Foundation. Their livelihood depends on the spring mountaineering season, which the pandemic effectively canceled. And he acknowledges how the pandemic magnifies the pitfalls of modern life.
“We live in a busy and frenetic world,” Anker says. “We’re oversubscribed. With our computers and our small screens, there is so much to grab our attention. And we’re constantly evaluating whether we are using our time wisely. It’s hardwired in our DNA as we evolved from hunter-gatherers to pastoralists to agriculturalists to the modern world. This creates a challenge.”
Mental and physical health should work in tandem. During the pandemic, they seem to be at odds: staying home saves lives, and staying home harms lives.
If you’re feeling down or anxious during this uneasy time, you’re not alone. Even under “normal” life circumstances, mental health disorders run rampant in the U.S. Nearly one in five American adults suffers from a mental illness. And depression, a diagnosis that covers a wide range of negative feelings that persist for at least two weeks, affects over 8 percent of American adults.
Unsurprisingly, mental health proves particularly precarious during a pandemic. Endless screen time, social isolation, and a looming unknown—the Coronavirus pandemic creates conditions that make people more susceptible to mental health issues.
Recent studies from Wuhan, China suggest that lockdowns and sheltering in place may escalate mental health issues and may exacerbate pre-existing ones. Research suggests that China will not be alone in suffering these consequences. A review of 3,166 studies on the psychological impact of quarantine around the world found that some people are experiencing negative psychological effects, including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger.
In addition to stressors directly related to the virus, such as worrying about loved ones, financial anxiety, loss of normalcy and purpose, and social isolation, many people cannot participate in the outdoor activities that bring them joy. Many local and national governments continue to ask residents to recreate close to home, and many national parks remain closed. At the same time, stay at home orders compel extra screen time, magnifying the technological trap of modern life.
One solution to this paradox of staying at home is to turn to another trait hardwired into human DNA — getting outside.
Nature Rx: a Sunny Solution
Doctors have encouraged patients to go outside for millennia. Around 400 B.C., Hippocrates called walking “man’s best medicine.” Science has steadily corroborated this hunch that moving your body for 30 to 40 minutes a few times a week boosts mental health. But new research suggests that simply going outside for as little as a few minutes a day may improve mental health, too.
Rakow, the co-author of the systematic review examining how long students must spend in nature to gain a positive impact on their psychology, found that as little as 10 minutes and as much as 50 minutes a day can have a positive and significant impact on mental health.
Speaking from his home in Ithaca, NY, Rakow currently navigates finishing the spring semester remotely at Cornell University. Online learning could prove challenging if virtual classrooms continue into the fall, when he teaches a course on the prescriptive effects of nature. Rakow adamantly believes in the healing powers of stepping away from the screen and getting outside.
“There is a lot of documented evidence that spending time in nature can have a significant impact on mental health,” Rakow, says. “Stress levels, anxiety levels, depression, suicidal ideation, and self-cutting — all of these negative mental health conditions have been shown to be alleviated by going outside.”
Rakow adds that sitting outdoors reduces biological markers of stress, such as slowing heart rate, decreasing the stress hormone cortisol, and lowering blood pressure. These biological changes translate to lowering perceived levels of stress, mitigating feels of anger and hostility, confusion, depressive symptoms, fatigue, and anxiety.
“You don’t need a great deal of time to have a positive experience in nature,” Rakow says. “You can easily go out into nature and derive mental health benefits. There’s also evidence that spending time in nature can improve cognitive behavior and recall, as well as sleep patterns.”
Rakow strives to incorporate spending time outside into the normative framework of being a good student. He believes these benefits extend to children and adults anywhere in the world.
Mental health issues manifest in myriad ways, so deciphering them can be tricky, experts say.
Dr. John Onate, who practices both internal medicine and psychiatry at the Sacramento County Health Center, studies depression in endurance athletes. Rather than use a checklist, Onate recommends methodical inquiry.
Onate outlines a few specific questions to ask someone who may be struggling:
- Have you felt depressed more than half of the time over the past few weeks?
- Have you been able to experience joy?
- If you try and distract yourself by playing with your kids or by watching a funny movie, can you feel emotion? Or does emotion feel blunted?
“There isn’t a magic formula for identifying someone with severe mental illnesses,” Onate says. “But you will get a sense from connecting with them. Utilize technology, whether it’s Facetime or Zoom, to check in with your family members, especially those who are really isolated. Try and reach out to them in some way. If you have an elderly neighbor and they don’t have any family, drop them a note on the door.”
If you think someone seems a little off, don’t be afraid to look out for them. Reach out and let them know you are worried about them.
“That very simple delivery can help a person open up,” Onate says. “Or at the very least, it will give you a better sense of what’s going on with them.”
Reconnect with Playfulness
Depression and other mental health disorders remain misunderstood, stigmatized and largely undetected, according to Onate.
A runner himself, Onate took a special interest in studying mental health among endurance athletes. His findings may seem counterintuitive: mental health issues seem to disproportionally affect endurance athletes. But the causal mechanism behind this trend remains unclear. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some endurance runners may start running to mitigate mental health problems. In fact, Onate’s research, which reviews the existing literature on exercise and mental health, shows that running can be an effective treatment for depression.
But even for professional athletes, like record-setting ultrarunner Scott Jurek, training looks a little different than it did just a few months ago.
In the spring of 2015, Scott set the fastest known time on the Appalachian Trail thru-hike. For those 46 days and 2,168 miles, his wife, Jenny, drove their van from one remote trailhead to the next to feed Scott, take care of his aching body, and provide a place to sleep. They now face an equally daunting task: staying at home in their 600-square-foot house with their two toddlers.
“Now that we’re all together 24/7 with no school or childcare, we’ve been doing a lot of runs on bike paths and roads with the kids as a way for us to get some miles in and get them outside,” Jenny says. “We’ve been doing these art runs, showing them the local murals around town. The kids love it and it’s a fun way to get them looking for beauty in unexpected places, be it in nature or urban settings.”
In fact, adults can learn from those small people suddenly home all day and in need of constant oversight.
“Kids possess this innate desire to be outside,” Scott says as he watches his children, ages two and three, play in the mulch outside their home. “They grow calmer and more patient in the open air. My kids go crazy inside, but they can stare at a piece of mulch minutes on end. I think adults can forget how good going outside feels. We need fresh air, too.”
Humans never outgrow the playground. Play literally rewires the brain. Studies in rats, who possess the same chemicals and architecture in the brain as humans, suggest that play may be imperative to survival for all social animals. Play lights up the brain like nothing else. Adults can learn from childhood play by incorporating playfulness into mundane chores like washing the dishes, and also into activities more directly related to play, like walking and running. In fact, because the human mind links play to going outside, the two can have a similar positive impact on the brain.
Licensed professional counselor Haleigh Fisher has already noticed a resurgence in mental health issues among her patients and prescribes a healthy dose of the outdoors as part of her treatment protocol.
“Being in nature, working outside, these activities are connected from a young age to the idea of play, like being at recess,” Fisher says. “Going outside changes the brain.”
City dwellers should seek out nature in urban canyons, parks, and green spaces. Emphasizing that people can benefit from the healing powers of nature, Fisher takes a special combination approach for people with limited access to the outdoors.
“If you’re on your back porch in the middle of New York City, think about a combination approach for this,” Fisher says. “Go out on your porch, even though it’s still going to be loud. If you have plants, spend time looking at that plant. Take advantage of natural sunlight and then maybe supplement by looking at photos of nature or listen to recordings of waves crashing on a beach or a waterfall.”
Our brains cannot differentiate between a photo of nature and nature itself, Fisher says.
Though he’s made a life of pushing the limits in the world’s most rugged and remote mountains, Anker has come to rely on simple, neighborhood outings near his home in Bozeman, Montana to get his dose of fresh air. While not as epic as his pre-pandemic Antarctic expedition, these walks have proved equally as nourishing to Anker’s soul.
“When you go on a walk, every rock you see is unique,” Anker says. “That randomness is the most beneficial aspect for me. It allows my mind to freely associate and to relax. And then I go to favorite trail just to see that same rock, again, it’s a familiar. It’s beautiful.”