Fresh air, lush foliage, open space, and sunshine. Time spent outdoors isn’t just good for the soul—research at UW EarthLab is showing it’s also good for the mind and body.
Even in the Pacific Northwest, where the weather is often, let’s say, less than optimal, getting out into nature brings with it a host of health benefits.
And there are plenty of options in the Seattle area, even in the heart of the city.
“There’s good evidence that spending time
outside can reduce stress, depression levels, and anxiety,” says Josh Lawler, a UW environmental & forest sciences professor.
Lawler is the director of the Nature and Health Initiative, a multidisciplinary research program launched last fall with funding from REI.
Research has shown we’re spending more and more time cooped up inside. The Environmental Protection Agency found that Americans spend an average of 90 percent of their time indoors.
The risks aren’t limited to the effects of a sedentary lifestyle: people indoors are exposed to levels of pollutants, like cleaning products and paint, that are 2 to 5 times higher than outdoors.
Time spent in nature, on the other hand, offers a catalogue of positive effects that is long and often surprising.
The mechanism isn’t exactly clear yet, Lawler says. “We suspect that one of the routes for the physical benefits is through decreased stress and anxiety.” In other words, feeling better on the inside benefits the entire body.
Some studies have even shown that people who start out more depressed and anxious seem to experience a greater effect, Lawler says.
In 2018, a research team at the UW College of the Environment launched a pilot study on how outdoor expeditions can help war veterans grappling with PTSD. A full clinical trial is planned as early as 2020.
The upside of outdoor time is especially important to children, says Pooja Tandon, a pediatrician at UW Medicine. “Our indoor environments are increasingly filled with screens and other reasons to be sedentary.”
Tandon says that studies focusing on the mental health benefits to children from playing outdoors are the most compelling. For example, children diagnosed with ADHD can concentrate better after spending time outdoors.
Time spent outdoors may also be crucial for normal eye development in kids—provided they wear sunglasses when necessary.
One angle researchers are still exploring is what exactly qualifies as “nature,” Lawler says. The spectrum ranges from hiking in wilderness areas to filling your house with plants to viewing a leafy scene on television.
“The hypothesis is that more is better, but we don’t know yet,” Lawler says. An important study done by UW’s Peter Kahn found that viewing an outdoor scene on a plasma screen does have some effect, but not as much as a real view.
Whatever form it takes, the importance of enjoying the outdoors is becoming increasingly clear. “Our family time is easier when we’re outdoors, definitely,” Tandon says. “Whether it’s just us or with friends, my boys tend to have a more positive experience outdoors—and so do I.”
Where to Get Outside in Seattle
There aren’t many cities that have as many outdoor options close at hand as Seattle does. Here are just a few.
“You get water, trees, a bunch of different environments, and the birds that come through in the spring are great,” he says.
The gardens also include the 230-acre Washington Park Arboretum on the shore of Lake Washington.
“People just can’t even believe that this space exists in the middle of the city,” says Adult Education Supervisor Jessica Farmer. “It’s really an opportunity to disconnect from the urban busyness of life.” Unlike most botanical gardens, she adds, admission is free.
Paddle and Row
Want to explore Union Bay? Rent a kayak, rowboat, or canoe at the UW Waterfront Activities Center, a short hop from the UW light rail station.
Keep an eye peeled for bald eagles and osprey, and if you’re feeling ambitious, you can paddle all the way to the Washington Park Arboretum.
It’s surprising how few people know about the Medicinal Herb Garden run by the UW Department of Biology, considering it started in 1911.
The two-acre plot has thousands of plants native to most environments on Earth, from deserts to tropical rainforests.
Its collection is constantly changing and growing with additions from around the world.
The garden’s entrance is near the UW chemistry building; look for the monkey statues on top of a pair of columns.
Take a Hike
It takes a little over an hour to drive to Pack Forest in Eatonville, an outdoor classroom where UW students study sustainable forestry.
The experimental forest covers over 4,300 acres of rolling Rainier foothills.
Within its boundaries, the Newton Creek Reserve protects 300 acres of lowland old growth forest.
A handful of trails snake through the forest. The 5.2-mile 1000 Road Loop is open to mountain bikers, while the 1.8-mile Hugo Peak Trail climbs almost 1,000 feet through second growth Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar.
Nature and Health is housed within UW’s EarthLab, an organization dedicated to accelerating and focusing UW expertise to address large-scale environmental challenges, making a positive impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.
Article by Julian Smith