6 Ways to Get Healthy By Getting Outdoors

As more and more people reside in large cities, they lose touch with nature and all the benefits that it provides. Here's why experiencing the natural world is good for you—and your health.

Urbanization is the Trend

As the trend towards an urban society increases so does our disconnection to the natural world. In Canada alone, the urban population (as a % of the total population) was reported by the World Bank at 81.75 % in 2022. With a population of around 38 million, that means more than 31 million Canadians live in cities and for many, they are out of sight of the natural landscapes we have in abundance. Sure, some people experience nature and some do so on a regular basis, but the majority of folks who live in cities do not. 

The "screentime" problem you see every day at your kitchen table also contributes to this sedentary, away-from-nature lifestyle. Unfortunately, none of these trends are good when it comes to a person's mental and physical health. Increased social isolation during the pandemic didn't help the screentime problem either.

Pristine wilderness lakes in Ontario

The Health Impacts of a Lack of Nature

There are many (dozens) of peer-reviewed studies showing negative health impacts (physical and mental) from a disconnection with nature and the natural world. In a 2019 study of 20,000 people, the findings showed that those who spent at least 2 hours per week in green spaces - a local park or other natural area - were more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who spent less time or no time.  In an article by Yale University's School of Environment, they noted the key findings from this study were, as they put it, "only the latest in a rapidly expanding area of research that finds nature has robust effects on people’s health — physically, mentally, and emotionally."

Aerial view of a Canadian Shield lake in Northwestern Ontario - Sunset Country

Other studies show that being disconnected from nature can contribute to real-world health issues such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. It can also lead to more benign but still negative impacts such as sleeplessness, fatigue and decreased cognitive function. While there is a consensus among scientists studying this that there is more research that needs to be done, every study that has been done to date shows that exposure to nature is good for your health. 

Impacts on Children and Youth

If you're a parent with kids, especially teenagers, you are probably concerned with the amount of time spent on mobile devices and for younger kids, watching television. Make no mistake, the studies mentioned here show that a lack of exposure to nature has the most impact on children. One need only read the quote from a statement issued by the world-famous Mayo Clinic to understand what these impacts might look like. 

Hiking in Ontario's Sunset Country

How Does Nature Benefit Your Health?

The short answer here is in a multitude of ways. Looking just at the subjective measures of health and well-being - both self-reported by the study participants - the results are very interesting. The graph below shows the increase in positive reports of both health and well-being based on the time exposed to nature, with 120-180 minutes per week being the most beneficial. 

Graph showing benefits for health and well being from exposure to natural environments

Source: Nature

What all this really means is people who experience contact with nature by spending time in a natural environment each week all stated they felt healthier and that their general well-being was good. When compared to people in the control group who were not exposed to nature, these self-reported observations were significantly lower. 

Other positive health impacts that have been identified include:

  • A decrease in symptoms related to depression, stress and anxiety.
  • Increased mental focus and cognitive function. 
  • Lower heart rates and blood pressure.
  • It has been shown that the sounds of nature such as wind, water, and animals, are preferred over anthropogenic sounds such as traffic, recreational noise, and industrial noise. (Source) So think of those soundtracks of thunderstorms they sell to help you sleep or of the cry of a loon and you'll get the meaning. 
  • If you've ever heard someone say they love the smell of forest or of the earth after it rains then that's an example of how the smells of nature can have positive health impacts. Why do people love the smell of flowers or of the ocean? Our sensory world be it sound or smell influences how we feel. The smells and sounds of a natural environment are definitely good for your health, especially your overall mood.   

Ways to Get Closer to Nature in the City

Since it's clear that increasing your time spent in natural environments is good for your mental and physical health, it begs the question of how can you increase your nature time. The good news is that even if you can't get outside the city (and you really should try), there are still places within urban centres where you can have a natural experience (albeit a more muted one). Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Visit your local city park and sit under a tree or beside a stream or a river. Reading a book is okay while you do this but leave the mobile device in the car or at home.
  2. Sit on your porch or front steps and listen to the rain.
  3. Make a point to get up early and listen to the birds sing as a new day dawns.
  4. Try to do these for a total of 2 hours a week to derive the most benefit.
mallard taking off

Taking the Plunge: Planning an Outdoor Trip or Vacation

One of the best ways to add more nature to your life is to make plans to get outdoors for an extended period of time - like a week or a weekend. Yes, that means you have to get out of the city and decide how deep into the natural world you want to go. The good thing is Sunset Country in Northwestern Ontario is a literal outdoor playground and offers travellers a wide range of options from easy to extreme when it comes to getting outside.

Late evening paddle

Outdoor Vacation Ideas in Ontario's Sunset Country

Here's a list of ideas for an outdoor vacation in Sunset Country. Some are more extreme than others so if you are new to the outdoors, then choose a trip labelled easy. 

  1. Weekend Hiking or Biking on Trails (Easy): Many of the communities in Sunset Country as well as in our Provincial Parks have groomed hiking and biking trails. Hiking is a great way to comfortably and safely immerse yourself in the outdoors. Here is a good resource article on hiking trails.
  2. Visit a Wilderness Lodge (Easy): There are almost 200 lodges you can stay at in Sunset Country. While fishing is the main attraction, many offer other amenities including a swimming beach, water toys and canoes. 
  3. Guided Day of Fishing (Easy): In Sunset Country, there are a number of independent fishing guides who can take you or your group out on a day of fishing. It's a great way to see the lake and enjoy a shore lunch of fresh fish!
  4. Wilderness Canoe Trip (Moderate/Hard): While not for the faint of heart, a guided or unguided wilderness canoe trip in Sunset Country is one of the best ways to experience nature up close. Expect to work a bit as you'll paddle routes first travelled by Indigenous people and early explorers. 
  5. Camping (Easy/Moderate): Another great way to experience the outdoors is to come here camping. You can do it in the comfort of an RV or just in a tent. There are many camping options available
  6. Rent a Houseboat (Easy): A unique vacation unto itself, renting a houseboat gives you many options to explore nature and our vast lakes. 

These are just a sample of what Sunset Country has to offer when it comes to getting closer to nature. With all the benefits you get, it's something you should try to do on a regular basis. Better yet, it'll be good for your health!

Canoe trips in Ontario
About Gerry Cariou

Gerry is Executive Director of Ontario's Sunset Country Travel Association and is an avid fisherman and nature photographer. Gerry has been writing about Sunset Country's varied travel experiences for over 20 years and lives these experiences year-round in Kenora, Ontario.

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