Most everyone knows the benefits of doing things outdoors.
Exercise, of course, improves our fitness. Getting away from life’s irritations helps us relax. Enjoying nature can help calm our emotions.
Being outdoors can also benefit our brains.
Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California-San Francisco, has spent a substantial portion of his career studying the ways our brains wire and rewire themselves. He believes outdoor activities affect our brains in several different ways.
“We’re designed to be outdoors,” he said. “Any physical activity in which you’re doing things or solving problems is good for your brain.”
According to Merzenich, the mere act of walking on an irregular surface has benefits.
“You’re feeling your body, making little adjustments step by step. Those little refinements of balance exercise your brain.”
The example he cited was walking barefoot on a beach. If that causes the brain to make “little refinements of balance,” can you imagine how many refinements it would have to make on a hike through a boulder field? Or, better yet, while wading the smooth basketball-sized cobbles on the bottom of a trout stream?
The benefits don’t stop at kinesthetic gains.
Merzenich said he likes to play catch with his grandchildren because it helps his brain maintain and improve his hand-eye coordination. With that in mind, how much good would a round of skeet or sporting clays do?
The act of casting a lure or a fly — hitting a small target, allowing for wind, allowing for river currents, managing slack line — generates exactly the sort of subtle complexities Merzenich considers beneficial.
Even a leisurely walk through the woods helps exercise what’s inside the ol’ noggin. Seeing things, hearing things, smelling things and touching things create the very sort of neural activity neuroscientists believe is good for us.
“The woods are full of delights,” Merzenich said. “We’re designed to fully appreciate the details of what’s out there. Historically, humans knew all the details of the world they lived in. We’ve lost that, and it’s not good for our brains.
“Each time you’re surprised, or each time something delightful occurs, little chemical explosions take place in your brain. So, seek delight. Seek surprise. It’s very, very healthy for your brain.”
Merzenich considers bird watching a great mental exercise.
“You’re watching and listening,” he said. “You’re making complex decisions about what [species of] woodpecker is making that rat-a-tat-tat you’re hearing. You’re hearing birds’ songs and trying to figure out what they are. You’re also involved in complex visual operations, and it is vision in motion. And all of this is done in some condition of excitement.”
If birding generates chemical explosions and neural connections, imagine what must go on in the mind of a bowhunter — scanning the woods for movement, listening keenly for sounds that might signal the approach of game, choosing the moment to draw the bow, mentally computing the arrow’s trajectory, choosing the point of aim and timing the shot.
By Merzenich’s standards, we outdoors enthusiasts are pretty darned fortunate. We have all the physical, mental and intellectual engagement we need to keep our brains healthy.
What are we waiting for, then? Let’s get out there, sweat through some neurological calisthenics, and have a ton of fun while we’re doing it!