When Christian Beckwith is feeling cooped up and stressed by the middle of a workday, he looks to move his legs.
In the 1,571-foot ski hill looming over Jackson’s southern horizon he finds a reliable outlet for getting the zoomies out and easing the mind all at once.
“I call my little hike up Snow King for lunch my antidepressant,” Beckwith said, “because if I don’t get it I can be overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world.”
Beckwith, who founded the SHIFT conference, runs a business that depends on events — and bringing a lot people together. It’s a livelihood that’s proved especially stressful as the world has careened deeper and deeper into the COVID-19 crisis, which is being combated by keeping people apart and causing all sorts of events to cancel.
It’s not the same inside
Instead, Beckwith could hop on a StairMaster, pace off 5,300 steps and perform essentially the same physical endeavor, he said. But there’s one key difference.
“If we spend that time outside,” Beckwith said, “we feel better.”
The connection between the outdoors and emotional well-being is something that Beckwith is yearing to learn as much about as he possibly can. Now in its seventh year, SHIFT, which operates under the new Center for Jackson Hole, has turned its attention to exploring the importance of nature in human health. That’s a mission that’s more relevant than ever.
“What we’re seeing around the country is this surge in interest and usage of the outdoors,” Beckwith said. “We’re seeing a deeper appreciation for the physical benefits, but really the mental benefits of spending time outside.”
In Jackson Hole, with its tremendous access and opportunities, residents seem to have connected those dots, consciously or not. Their response to coping with COVID-19 and shelter-in-place directives is a case in point.
“The sidewalk outside my house,” Beckwith said, “I’ve never seen it so teeming.”
Good for the brain
There’s a growing body of scientific literature underpinning assertions about the positive mental health affects of the great outdoors. Science writer Florence Williams, author of the recent book, “The Nature Fix,” knows all about it.
“In the last five or 10 years we’ve seen a deep body of research showing that there are serious benefits mentally to being outside,” Williams said. “Those include benefits that make us both emotionally happier and also cognitively sharper.
“Human beings are really evolved to read information in the natural world, and so there’s something about spending time there that puts our brains at ease, even on a subconscious level.”
In the outdoors, nervous systems calm down. The frontal cortex and other parts of the brain that get overtaxed by modern indoor life, reading emails and problem solving are in turn put at ease.
“In a time when we’re kind of sensorily deprived and spending so much time indoors and on screens,” Williams said, “the benefits of the outdoors are more important than ever before.”
Even a little bit helps
It doesn’t require a major backpacking trip or skin to the top of the Tetons to get the job done. Some Japanese research has determined that just 15 minutes out in the open air can improve moods, blood pressure and respiration.
Generally, Williams said, the research suggests that there’s a “dose curve,” and the more outdoor exposure, the better. Being in a dynamic environment with a lot of biodiversity, birdsong and little human-produced sound is ideal in that regard.
“But there’s also a lot of evidence showing that being in urban nature can really start us down the path toward feeling calmer and happier,” she said. “There are still a lot of benefits to be gained even from just a view outside your window of trees and grass.”
Williams, a denizen of the Washington D.C., area, takes the expert advice to heart, especially during difficult times like now. When she spoke to the News&Guide last week she was driving with her son to a trailhead as raindrops clattered on her car.
“It’s a little bit like eating spinach,” Williams said. “Sometimes I don’t really feel like getting up and going outside in the rain, but I know if I do I will feel better afterwards.”
A future prescription
Beckwith said that society as a whole poorly understands the mental health benefits of being outside. The cause of nature as Rx, he said, could use its Smokey Bear, or some other emblem or moment that resonates and helps crystalize the connection.
“The science needs to be developed more robustly,” he said. “And the story of that science needs to be told more objectively. One of the challenges is the narrative.”
A recommendation to spend more time outside could someday be part of the prescription for someone facing a mental health challenge.
“I think clinicians of all sorts are starting to look more closely at this research,” Williams said. “But I think we have a long way to go. This isn’t really something that’s taught in medical school or in psychology programs.”
One reason to believe nature will be given a longer, harder look by doctors is that traditional forms of medicine and approaches aren’t curing a lot of pervasive problems, like depression, anxiety and obesity.
“So I think there’s an increasing willingness to look outside the box at things, like nature, that make us feel happier and better,” Williams said.