As a child, shoes were always optional. I wandered barefoot as often as I could get away with, splashing through welcoming post-rainfall puddles in the driveway and feeling the crisp grass between my toes in the front yard. Covering my feet felt unnaturally restrictive. They longed to be free, exploring the earth beneath them in all its temperatures and textures: cool pavement, warm sand, rough bark, lush moss.
As a child, shoes were always optional.
I developed an intimate connection with nature early on, marveling at its tiniest insects and tallest tress. I took comfort in spotting the moon each night and befriended caterpillars each summer as they morphed into butterflies. I was nearly inconsolable when the ant in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” died.
There was no distinction in my mind between play clothes and dress clothes. Whatever I was wearing risked weathering the impact of grass, dirt, wind and rain, sometimes all at once. Nature and I were constant allies, I admiring her handiwork, she replenishing my curiosity.
As a lover of the great outdoors, I’m continually in awe of the life cycles of the plants that surround us and their intricate, effortless beauty. I crave rain as much as I do sun, and have been known to go for runs during heavy downpours. I’m an avid hiker and aspiring stargazer. I could do without bitter cold winters, but I forgive Mother Nature for this seeming lapse in judgment because after all, she usually knows best.
But that’s not all, dear reader. Nature looks out for our well-being in ways that challenge our simplistic notions of our surroundings. Research has shown that exposure to nature can:
Reduce hypertension, respiratory tract and cardiovascular illnesses: Numerous studies have found that both exercising in forests and simply sitting looking at trees reduce blood pressure in addition to the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Improve vitality and mood: Using the Profile of Mood States test, researchers found that time spent in the woods significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue.
Restore attention capacity and mental fatigue: “Spending time in nature, looking at plants, water, birds and other aspects of nature gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break, allowing us to focus better and renew our ability to be patient.”
Furthermore, various studies suggest that the practice of “forest bathing” — deliberately spending time among the woods — can help us cope with the stresses and strains of urban living. Just being around trees can decrease stress, rumination and anxiety and boost immune system function.
Don’t think that you can’t reap nature’s benefits just because you live in an urban landscape. Here are some ways you can let more green into your life:
Buy houseplants: Houseplants deliver a host of advantages, from improving concentration and productivity to reducing stress levels and banishing the blues. It’s no wonder: research has shown that houseplants can remove up to 87% of air toxins in 24 hours!
Eat outside: Ditch the office and dine al fresco once a week. Short on time? Consider going for a quick walk instead.
Exercise outdoors: Switch up your workout scenery. Take your yoga mat to the park; rent a canoe for the afternoon; listen to a podcast while you go for a run; climb the 100 steps to the top of Federal Hill and reward yourself with some fantastic views.
Go for a gratitude walk: This is one of my favorite practices and it can work wonders for the body, mind and soul. As you walk, list things you’re grateful for. Challenge yourself to keep going until you run out of things to name (or until your feet give out!)
How do you like to immerse yourself in nature? The opportunities are bountiful, and the perks, well, they speak for themselves. Now that summer’s officially underway, make an effort to bask in the sun, sit under the stars and thank Mother Nature for always having your back.
This article originally appeared on Baltimore STYLE.