You wake up in a tent, unzip your sleeping bag, and step outside. Your kids rub their bleary eyes and follow you out and you start the process of making pancakes. Suddenly you and the kids are smarter, have better concentration skills, will heal faster from injuries, and you’ve slowed the pace of your aging, all before breakfast is over. Camping is good for us, medically speaking. The evidence is piling up like a stack of firewood next to a campfire.
Stronger Immune Systems
Medical research studied recovery times from people in windowless rooms compared to windows looking out over trees. Patients who could look at trees recovered faster and needed fewer painkillers.
Better Memory and Concentration
University of Michigan researchers tested people’s memory retention and then divided them into two groups. One group walked through an urban setting for an hour. The other walked through the University arboretum. Then they re-tested. The urban group’s memory was the same afterwards, but the arboretum walkers increased their memory and attention span 20 percent. In 2004, a study replaced 69 after-school activities for kids diagnosed with ADHD with time in nature. They found that being outside was equal or better than the effects of Ritalin.
Stress, Mood, and Anxiety
In 2015, a researcher did a similar study to the Michigan study, having a group of people walk through downtown Palo Alto and another group walk through a forest near campus. Before and after, he measured their brain activity. The nature group had less blood flow to the sebgenual prefrontal cortex (try saying that a few times fast), a part of the brain associated with a tendency to dwell on negative thoughts.
Researchers at Yale and Oxford had people exercise in a gym. They moved the equipment outdoors and repeated the exercises in a natural setting. The same exercise, done outside, resulted in a greater reduction of oxidative decay of mitochondria—a primary aging process. Exercise of any kind is good, but it’s better outside. Blood pressure dips lower than it does indoors, and the unpredictable nature of running on trails instead of treadmills makes workouts more energy intensive and people feel more relaxed afterwards. Contrary to assumptions about the effects of bad weather, a 2014 Canadian study indicated that people who exercise outdoors tend to stick to their regimens more, and are also more active outside their scheduled workout time, although this may reflect the personalities of outdoor exercisers as well.
“Executive function” is the term for a kid’s ability to initiate, organize, plan, prioritize, influence the actions of others, and in general get things done. It’s a key predictor of success in life, and one of the biggest elements of early childhood development. Richard Louv, in the landmark book The Last Child In the Woods, noticed how kids were being shuttled from structured activity to structured activity instead of being given free reign to invent their own games. Organizing your pals to build a campground stick fortress is a perfect example of executive function. The combination of outdoor time and unstructured time to roam (ideally free of electronic screens) is a great builder of executive function.
Of course, if you’re reading this article on a blog dedicated to the outdoors, most of this may not seem surprising—you’re already interested in the outdoors. You go camping because it works, even if you don’t know exactly why it works. But scientific evidence has another impact. We’re an evidence-based society, and the evidence is now catching the attention of doctors, hospitals, health insurance companies and law makers.
Of course, camping has only been called camping for a few centuries. Before that, it was called life. We lived outdoors for the million or so years from Olduvai Gorge until the Agricultural Revolution. Camping only became a recreational activity when we moved into cities in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and suddenly realized that we missed nature. It’s been programmed deep into our evolutionary origins since forever.
Your mom knew that intuitively when she told you to go outside and play.