Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, lastextremeanonymous.

If you’re of a certain age you can probably remember this crazy thing we used to do called “playing outside.” We would step out the door and there would be a world of possibility right there for us. Even when I didn’t want to go out, one of my parents would finally get fed up and scream “Robert! It’s time to go out and play!” This happened well into my thirties. Not so these days.

Today, with online shopping and highly addictive Netflix content, we can feel overly comfortable and even trapped in our homes. As folks who are aging, we have to watch out for the risk of depression that these isolating lifestyle factors can bring. Remember David Suzuki from the TV show, The Nature Of Things? Well, he headed up a major study on getting out into nature and our mental health. Here’s how it can help you.

The good doctor got more than 10,000 Canadians to commit to going outside for at least 30 minutes a day for 30 days. Here’s what he found: Participants reported significant increases in their sense of well-being, feeling more vitality and energy, while feelings of stress, negativity and sleep disturbances diminished. All of that just from going out in nature for 30 minutes a day? That’s pretty impressive.

Spending just 30 minutes in nature can boost your mood. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Fortune Brainstorm TECH.

I am passionate about riding my bike to work and my route takes me right through a small chunk of nature in the middle of the city. It’s such a change from the greyness of the streets that I immediately feel my spirits lift. By the time I get to work, I am almost high on the experience of being in a natural setting. Sometimes I even brag about how sweaty I am during meetings. Perhaps this is why no one wants to have coffee with me.

How much nature?
What can you do to get more nature in your day? Do you have to climb Mount Kilimanjaro at dawn? Walk the wild Savannah of Africa?  Dive the Great Barrier Reef and spearfish for your own dinner? If you do, I’d be wildly impressed. However, you don’t have to go to those extremes. You can go for a 30-minute walk at lunch, sit in the park or even take your dog for a stroll.

Thing get weird
Sometimes our experiences in nature can be a bit surprising… I may not have mentioned this before, but I love storms. I get truly excited when the weather report calls for nasty conditions that most people dread. The forecast for heavy thunderstorms and the warning that “all sane people should stay indoors” fills me with glee. To me, a big storm is nature at its finest.

Nature can be surprising and wonderful at times. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Jason Lemiere.

My wife and I have this great little house with a storm drain right next to it. When we get heavy rain, it can clog with debris and this is nasty for our basement, to say the least. So I have to go out during a bad storm and stand in the water, clear the drain and make sure the basement doesn’t flood. Standing in water that’s above your ankles during a thunderstorm doesn’t sound like a party, but I have a confession. I love it.

It allows me to get soaked to the skin, feel useful and to have a reason to stand outside during some of the worst storms. Then to top it off, I go inside the house, soaking wet, and my wife tells me what a hero I am. It’s genius! It’s now clear that one of the reasons I love doing this so much is that when I am standing in cold water, I am actually enjoying being able to watch and listen to the storm. You see? Even bad experiences in nature are still pretty good.

Take the time to listen to the soothing sounds of rain. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Mark Ramsay.

Have you ever come back from being outside and thought to yourself, “Gosh, that walk was terrible!” or “I really wish I hadn’t gone for a bike ride in the woods. Now I’m miserable!” Of course not! That’s because our experiences with being in nature are usually profoundly positive.

I can hear you say that there was that one time after a plane crash in the Andes you were on the side of a mountain waiting to be rescued for two months and all you had to eat was a stale packet of saltines, and that particular time in nature was a bit much. Point taken. But, taken in smaller doses, say 30 minutes at a time, being in nature can have a very positive effect on our mental health and happiness. It is really a secret weapon in our quest to stay happy and healthy as we get older. So get outside and have a blast. And if you happen to see Dr. Suzuki, please tell him I said, “Hi!”