In 1923 English mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked why he intended to climb Mount Everest the following year. He replied “because it’s there.” Those three words, perhaps the most famed in all of mountaineering, might also be the raison d’être for any outdoor activity. The mountain bike rider traverses a rocky trail because it’s there, just as an evening stroller saunters to a woodland pond because it’s there.
Yet even in outdoor-aware Norway, the prevalence of outdoor venues doesn’t fully account for their attraction. Indoor activities clamor more for our attention. This may be why outdoor aficionados often praise the mental benefits of their pursuits. The mountain bike rider may boast of the adrenaline kick of a precipitous trail, just as the philosopher may praise the tranquility of a silent shore.
So we are active outdoors for many reasons. Or are we? Might there be a single unifying reason that explains it all? Moreover, in the ongoing environmental enlightenment, might outdoor activities be part of the Gaia? In 2005, questions such as these were included in a three-year joint initiative by the Nordic countries to probe the interactions between the environment and public health.
Together, the Nordic countries are an ideal crucible for such inquiry. Their populations are among the most physically active of the world, which contributes to their consistently high scorings in international comparisons of happiness. They are all social democracies with well-developed welfare systems, so solutions to problems are transferable across borders.
The quest was commonsensical; the Nordic countries wanted to know where future healthcare spending might be headed. Mental health was singled out as a principal concern, in step with the World Health Organization prediction that by 2020, mental maladies and depression will be the second most prevalent public health challenge worldwide.
That set the agenda for the Outdoor Life and Mental Health project that started in 2006, peaked in an inter-Nordic congress in 2007 held at Lake Sem in Asker township south of Oslo, finished in 2008, and published its findings in 2009. The findings are largely of interest to welfare administrators and healthcare professionals. But turned around, they explain why we seek the outdoors, as do three principal findings.
Hikers on snow
By kind permission of Bob WoodwardFirst, regular physical activity is beneficial in the prevention and treatment of many lifestyle illnesses. Yet to date, it mostly has been prescribed as an antidote for overweight, obesity and cardiovascular maladies. It has been little used in the prevention and treatment of mental maladies. That should change, as physical activity is known to help people overcome angst and depression.
Second, physical activity is most effective when done outdoors. This is because the physiological benefit of physical activity is more or less independent of where it takes place, while the mental benefit can be fully realized only outdoors. In turn, this is because mental benefit depends on the interplay of many stimuli, and only outdoors can we experience the interplay that involves the whole person.
Finally, even in small amounts, natural environments are beneficial. Post-operative patients recover more rapidly if they can see a bit of green nature through the windows of their hospital rooms. Even short walks in natural surrounds have measurable psychological effects. In urban environments, ready access to green spaces helps improve health, lower mortality, and reduce social problems.
The overall conclusion is that the outdoors isn’t just undeveloped landscapes in which some of us ramble. It’s where our minds still function, despite the veneer of recorded history. For 90% of the time we humans have existed on Earth, we’ve been hunter-gatherers. In computer terms, we’re still so hardwired, despite generations of programming to cope with the complexities of our increasingly urban lifestyles.
The Nature Experience and Mental Health, Report extract in English, Oslo, Norwegian Ministry of the Environment, April 2010, 28 page softcover, publication T-1474E, ISBN 978-82-457-039-6. Free PDF file available on Ministry of the Environment website.