Have you ever called work to say you’re sick and then gone hunting? Did you feel a little guilty? We’ve all done it and maybe some of us feel bad. But I have good news. There is no reason to feel bad about your decision.
Yes, you heard me right and feel free to pass this information on to your boss. What the hunters knew all along has now been confirmed in hundreds of studies by doctors, researchers, and scientists around the world. Nature makes us less stressed, happier and, in many quantitative ways, even healthier. This is so well documented now that some doctors even prescribe time outdoors for patients.
The old saying used to be that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” No offense to the fruit, but going out hunting might just be what the doctor ordered.
When I started reading about the science of how nature benefits human health, my reaction was, “Well, don’t fuck with me.” He had seen, felt and known it deeply since he was a child, at least intuitively. But why exactly this was, he couldn’t quite explain.
Fortunately, others can. One of the first attempts was made by the renowned biologist EO Wilson, in what he popularized as the biophilia hypothesis.
“In short, the brain evolved in a biocentric world,” Wilson wrote. The idea here is that humans became human amidst the sights, sounds, and smells created by the natural world. This was the environment we were built for, but from which modern humans are increasingly divorced. It only makes sense that we operate better when we are exposed to these same stimuli again. This theory, among others that delve into more specific aspects, point to the fact that exposure to the natural world benefits our well-being.
“Around the world there is now a network of legitimate nature researchers studying all the ways the biophilia hypothesis could improve humans from head to toe,” wrote Michael Easter in his book The Comfort Crisis. “They are showing that the great outdoors is a potent antidote to modern human conditions of chronic disease and excessive stress, overstimulation and overwork.”
The power of nature
Imagine a typical day of deer hunting. We got up early, sneaked our way through a forest of oak and pine trees before dawn, then climbed to the top of a tree and settled in for the morning. For the next few hours our mind wanders, we survey the scene watching green and green leaves sway back and forth and a gentle stream flowing in the distance, we listen to a gurgling brook and a gentle breeze. We breathe deeply and slowly. This, in my opinion, is the recipe for a damn good day. It’s also exactly what a growing number of scientists say we need to live healthier, happier lives.
Consider the practice of “forest bathing,” popularized by the Japanese, which is simply the act of walking and resting in a forest setting. Shinrin-yoku, as it is known in Japan, has been studied extensively and has been shown to lead to measurable improvements in a number of physiological metrics. “Trips to forest toilets reduce salivary cortisol concentrations, reduce urinary epinephrine and norepinephrine concentrations, reduce prefrontal brain activity, lower blood pressure, and stabilize autonomic nerve activity in humans,” Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness wrote.
In simple terms, time outdoors is causing chemical changes in humans that reduce stress, increase focus and creativity, enhance feelings of happiness, and promote other positive health attributes.
As explained by the biophilis hypothesis and the “Stress Reduction Theory” developed by American researcher Roger Ulrich, part of what is at stake here is simply the impact of stress reduction on leaving the chaos of civilization and returning to our natural environment. Natural stimuli equal good feelings, both mentally and physically. This is true whether you are walking through a forest, climbing a mountain, or sitting in a tree. It has even been shown, according to some studies, that the simple act of looking out of a window or images of a natural environment can trigger positive impacts.
But there is also growing research pointing to more physical variables at play, specifically the impacts of breathing essential oils and aerosols that trees and other plants emit into the air known as phytoncides. These chemicals emitted by plants, intended to defend against bacteria or insects, have increasingly been found to have beneficial physiological effects on human health. Spend any amount of time in a tree stand and you’re sure to inhale a healthy dose of trees, not to mention the higher concentration of living oxygen these trees also produce.
Finally, it should be noted that time spent exploring the natural world, in our case hunting, almost always favors increased exercise. Physical activity, though another article altogether, has been even more widely shown to benefit our health and well-being in profound ways. Combine the natural world with exercise and you have essentially found the fountain of youth.
wonder and escape
The physical impacts of daily nature exposure to pedestrians, similar to sitting in a tree, are now well documented. But there are even more opportunities for us hunters to benefit from our preferred activity. One of them lies in the impact of amazement.
Numerous studies have now shown that awe, which is the physical and mental sensation we experience when exposed to an exceptional or extraordinary event, is also a natural driver of health. Watching two mature males circle, perch, and then fight violently for dominance. Watch a bull moose crest a mountain ridge and blast his bugle into the frigid air. Lying face down behind a fallen tree as a black bear sniffs the air and curiously approaches your turkey decoys. All of these experiences induce awe, which has now been discovered to be another “super drug” from the natural world.
Studies have found that consistent experiences of awe can lead to improved mood, increased humility, increased life satisfaction, and a decreased sense of self in which participants experienced the positive effects of “changing their Focus away from your own concerns.
Another line of research in natural science has revolved around the “three-day effect.” This, in short, is the (now documented) positive impact that humans experience when they leave civilization behind and immerse themselves (without technology) in nature for at least three days. Or, as I like to think of it, the case of escaping for a week-long backcountry hunting vacation. Take, for example, the results of a 2012 study that found the three-day effect leads to a nearly 50% increase in creative thinking and problem solving. Another study involving combat veterans on a four-day rafting trip saw a 29% reduction in PTSD symptoms and a 21% reduction in stress levels.
“On day one, stress and health markers improve, but we are still adjusting to the discomfort of nature,” writes Michael Easter in The comfort crisis. “By the second day, our mind is settling down and awareness is heightening. We care less about what we leave behind and begin to notice the sights, smells, and sounds around us. And then comes day three. Now our senses are fully attuned and we can achieve a fully meditative way of feeling connected to nature.”
Walk through the woods, sit among the trees, watch wild animals do wild things. This is what we love as hunters. It’s what we do as often as possible. It is also, increasingly, exactly what is being prescribed to help us live healthier, happier lives.
So the next time you’re considering skipping work and going into the woods, consider this note from your doctor. Let’s go.
Author’s Note: If you want to delve deeper into this topic, I recommend reading The Nature Fix by Florence Williams and The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter.