Take a hike! No, really

Nature is the best drug out there

By Jill Richardson

For the first decade that I suffered from severe and almost daily migraines, I didn’t consider them a gift. Yet, in a way — a very painful one — they are.

My headaches began setting me apart from the rest of society at the age of 15. Back in 1996, my brother got a Nintendo 64. Eager to try it out, I begged him to give me a turn. But it was unmistakable — watching the screen gave me headaches.

Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson

Everyone who gets migraines has a different “trigger” — a food, a smell, lack of sleep. My triggers are all visual and luminescent: looking at fluorescent lights, TV, and movies. That keeps me out of gyms, some stores and restaurants, and even some jobs.

In 2006, after trying 20 medications with limited success, my doctor gave me the prescription I’d needed all along. “Unless you exercise outdoors for 30 minutes a day, there is no pill I can give you that will help.”

At first my 30 minutes of daily exercise consisted of brisk walks in my neighborhood, but I can’t say I enjoyed them. Then I discovered hiking.

Growing up in the Midwest, I wasn’t an outdoorsy kid. I was like many Americans: I sat on the couch. I watched TV. I read books. I played board games. Going outside meant getting dirty, or sweaty, or hot, or cold, or bit by mosquitoes. Maybe other people liked that, but not me.

Hiking where I live now, Southern California, is a different story. The weather is perfect and there aren’t any mosquitoes. It’s like a gateway drug to loving nature. And truly, nature is the best drug out there.

Studies now show that spending time in nature — with or without exercise — providescognitive and psychological benefits. Even looking out the window at trees can help.

Apparently, after forcing yourself to pay attention to things you must focus on (work, instructions from doctors, income tax forms), you become mentally fatigued. Sleep provides some relief, but not enough. Nature, it turns out, provides your brain the restoration it requires to get back to concentrating on that important stuff again.

Another study found that spending just 20 minutes in nature reduced stress — and stress is a major risk factor in many diseases since it suppresses your immune system.

But science is telling us what people who love the outdoors intuitively know. I often refer to “my mountain” (where I hike almost daily) as my gym, my church, my social scene, and my classroom. And wildflower season is “my Christmas.”

For some people, turning off the TV and getting outside requires willpower. Not for me. If I watched a Breaking Bad marathon instead of hiking, I’d pay for it with a crippling migraine.

By forcing me to get outside, my migraines gave me the impetus needed to figure out how to get outside in ways that make me happy. It’s a matter of trial and error, finding the right gear, activities, and companions to meet your needs, and learning how to deal with nature even though you utterly cannot control it. Years ago, I would have been terrified to meet a rattlesnake on a trail. Now, I whip out my camera when I see one.

Most people don’t have migraines or doctors wise enough to prescribe nature as medicine. As much as I love my mountain, I had to be forced to go find it. Without debilitating headaches, I would have stayed indoors on the couch.

My migraines are only a more pronounced warning sign of a truth everyone must accept: We all need to get outdoors to stay healthy. For our bodies, yes, but also for our minds and our spirits.

Your soul is hungry for nature. Go feed it!

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

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