In 1923, English mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked why he intended to climb Mount Everest the following year. He replied “because it’s there.” Those three words, regarded the most famed in all of mountaineering, might also be the raison d’être for any outdoor activity. The mountain-bike rider traverses a rocky trail because it’s there, just as an evening stroller saunters to a woodland pond because it’s there.
Yet the being of outdoor venues doesn’t fully account for their attraction. Indoor activities clamor more for our attention. This may be why outdoor aficionados often speak of the mental benefits of their pursuits. The mountain-bike rider may boast of the adrenaline kick of a precipitous trail, just as the philosopher may praise the tranquility of a silent shore. And as readers of this magazine know, outdoor life is said to be good for you.
So, we are active outdoors for many reasons. Or are we? Might there be a single unifying reason that explains it all? Moreover, in the ongoing environmental enlightenment, might outdoor activities be part of the Gaia? In 2005, questions such as these were included in a three-year joint initiative by the Nordic countries to probe the interactions between the environment and public health. Together, the Nordic countries are an ideal crucible for such inquiry. Their populations are among the most physically active of the world, which contributes to their consistently high scorings in international comparisons of happiness. They are all social democracies with well-developed welfare systems, so solutions to problems are transferable across borders. And, save for Finnish, their languages are mutually intelligible, so international meetings may be held without interpreters.
The quest was commonsensical; the countries wanted to know where future healthcare spending might be headed. Mental health was singled out as a principal concern, in step with the World Health Organization prediction that, by 2020, mental maladies and depression will be the second-most-prevalent public
health challenge worldwide. That set the agenda for the Outdoor Life and Mental Health project that started in 2006, peaked in an inter-Nordic congress in 2007, finished in 2008, and published its findings in 2009. The findings are largely of interest to welfare administrators and healthcare professionals. But, turned around, they explain why we seek the outdoors, as do three principal findings of interest to those of us attuned to the outdoor experience.
First, regular physical activity is beneficial in the prevention and treatment of many lifestyle illnesses. Yet, to date, it mostly has been prescribed as an antidote for overweight, obesity and cardiovascular maladies. It has been little used in the prevention and treatment of mental maladies. That should change, as physical activity is known to help people overcome angst and depression.
Second, physical activity is most effective when done outdoors. This is because the physiological benefit of physical activity is more or less independent of where it takes place, while the mental benefit can be fully realized only outdoors. In turn, this is because mental benefit depends on the interplay of many stimuli, and only outdoors can we experience the interplay that involves the whole person.
Finally, even in small amounts, natural environments are beneficial. Post-operative patients recover quicker if they can see a bit of green nature through the windows of their hospital rooms. Even short walks in natural surrounds have measurable psychological effects. In urban environments, ready access to green spaces helps improve health, lower mortality and reduce social problems.
The overall conclusion is that the outdoors isn’t just undeveloped landscapes in which some of us romp. It’s where our minds still function, despite the veneer of what we call recorded history. For, 90 percent of the time we humans have existed on Earth, we’ve been hunter-gatherers. In computer terms, we’re still thus hardwired, despite generations of programming to cope with the complexities of our increasingly urban lifestyles.
Most likely, all who have taken to the outdoors for recreation have experienced the truth of that conclusion. I admit to having been aware of it in advance, as the 2007 inter-Nordic congress of the Outdoor Life and Mental health project was held at a course center on the shore of Lake Sem, in the municipality of Asker, the exurb of Oslo where I live. I felt that its findings ought to be boiled down in English and made available to the outdoor world at large. So when the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment asked me to translate an extract of the report, I agreed on the spot. The extract in English was published in April 2010 (see Further Reading box). This Dateline Europe column is based on that enjoyable task.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. His Dateline: Europe column appears monthly in the Gazette.