In short, your body needs the great outdoors. Studies continue to show the benefit of hiking and camping in God’s creation.
Trouble getting to sleep? Scientists say go camping (Science Daily). Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder believe they have a solution to insomnia. It’s as simple as spending more time in the sun, to help calibrate your biological clock. Too many artificial lights and computer screens are interfering with natural body rhythms that help put us to sleep at the proper time.
“Late circadian and sleep timing in modern society are associated with negative performance and health outcomes such as morning sleepiness and accidents, reduced work productivity and school performance, substance abuse, mood disorders, diabetes, and obesity,” says Kenneth Wright at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Our findings demonstrate that living in our modern environments contributes to late circadian timing regardless of season and that a weekend camping trip can reset our clock rapidly.”
The researchers measured levels of melatonin in volunteers who went camping and those who stayed home. They found that despite big changes in the amount of daylight between summer and winter, the effects of outdoor light had pronounced effects on sleep, even with just two days in the wilderness. Interestingly, natural sleep was longer in the winter when the nights were longer.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Colorado scientists put a premium on camping, given the beauty of the Rocky Mountains nearby. But even city dwellers could benefit from architecture that lets in more natural daylight, or tunes artificial light to change throughout the day like sunlight does.
The research also shows that humans do better starting their activities later in the morning than usual work hours permit. Deborah Netburn’s coverage at the Los Angeles Times includes the quote, “That finding shows we are similar to other animals.” But that’s not surprising; we share most bodily traits with mammals. What’s different is that animals don’t build cities and set work schedules contrary to their natural rhythms.
We are wired to be outside (National Geographic). Once in awhile, science returns to the obvious. “Science is demonstrating what we intuitively know: Nature makes us happy,” this article by Simon Worrall begins. The article suggests that the new trend of “sensory deprivation” may be the wrong approach to relaxation. The opposite, putting all your senses in touch with nature in a session of “forest bathing” – a Japanese tradition supported by the government of Japan – may be a bit extreme for Americans, but a little nature is better than none. Even looking at a house plant can help make us feel good in a small way.
Worrall talks with author Florence Williams about how science is catching up with the Romantic-era obsession with the beauty of nature. Romantics reacted against the Enlightenment emphasis on rationality and the industrial revolution’s heavily scheduled, indoor, stressful lifestyle. Today’s scientific instruments measure more calm, better sleep and less disease with those who routinely experience natural surroundings. Williams says,
One of the things I found out was that most people are not that happy when they are at work. They’re happiest when they are on vacations, with friends, making or listening to music. One of the surprising finds was that they’re also very, very happy when they are outside.
Worrall and Williams make a point of distancing the healthful benefits of nature from religious experience. Speaking of the Romantic era,
What was unique about it was that it wasn’t about finding peace in God or finding religion. It was about this more immediate connection to nature and how that spurred our spiritual imaginations, how being in more rural, natural environments made us whole as people.
But it seems odd to speak of “spiritual imaginations” if humans evolved by blind processes of nature. Williams commits a faux pas by mixing up two very different worldviews:
Our sensory system evolved in the natural world and when we’re in those spaces, our brains become relaxed because these are things that we were designed to look at, hear and to smell. [Italics in original, bold added.]
Williams describes what governments in Finland, Singapore and Japan are doing to meet the natural needs of workers. America could do more, but “We are so fortunate in America,” she says. “We have these incredible wilderness spaces and national parks, and science is showing that when we spend time in those spaces, it can be tremendously helpful for our sense of self, for problem solving, social bonding, and rites of passage.”
Christians can and should embrace the outdoors for the glory of God. He is the Creator of all things good and healthful. Secular evolutionists, Romanticists and new-age environmentalists do not own nature. They merely receive some of the benefits that God in his common grace bestows on all humans (Acts 14:15–17) and find them to be good, but for the wrong reasons. Tragically, by not acknowledging and thanking God (even though they know of him through the abundantly evident design of nature), they glorify the creature and not the Creator, as Paul said in Romans 1:18–25. This demonstrates the truth that all people – even atheists — worship something.
The proper response to the wrong-headed actions of those “became futile in their thinking” is not to stay holed up indoors all the time, refusing to hike just because the Sierra Club goes hiking. The proper response is to think rightly by acknowledging the Creator, to thank him, and to worship him for what he has made. It makes sense that your worship will be amplified by exposure to his works in creation. That’s why in 1984 I founded Creation Safaris, taking people of all ages to witness and learn about wildflowers, animals, stars and forests – anywhere where God has created something. Williams is right; my most memorable moments have been those experiences, not the larger number of hours spent indoors in a windowless cubicle at work. I once calculated that I have spent well over a year sleeping on the ground outdoors when all the trips were added up.
Did you know God approves of camping? “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods.” Ezekiel 34:25.
Make it a project to spend more time outdoors. See if it produces measurable benefits in terms of sleep, energy and well-being. And be sure to give God thanks when it does. —DFC