As many of you may know, I recently went through a huge transition in my life. Shifting from the 24-hour grind of a student-athlete, I left my college town, my friends and my sport to attend graduate school at the University of Arkansas. Although it was the start of an exciting new chapter, there was a lot of pain I had to process. Swimming had been my whole life, my passion and my purpose, and now I was throwing myself into something new, hoping it would be enough to satisfy my insatiable craving for success.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy.

When you walk away from something that used to define who you are, something you didn’t only love but was truly a part of you, there is a mourning process. It’s like losing a close friend. And no matter how hard I tried to avoid it, the grief pressed on my body like a heavy weight. And the people I loved and spent the last four years of my life with were no longer right next door to comfort me (although I was fortunate enough to have my parents just 45 minutes down the road).

Soon it was clear that my new lifestyle wasn’t sustainable. My studies weren’t filling the great hole in my chest, still raw. The goals I had set for myself no longer appealed to me. Was this really where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing?

As I set out again to search for a new path, I started listening to my heart. I began seeing a therapist who helped me process my grief instead of locking it away in the back of my mind. I learned that even though there were countless life lessons I’d learned from my sport, life wasn’t quite like swimming. You can’t get everything you want just by going 110% all the time, and you don’t have to avoid the things you love to be successful.

Living it up at my new school

Gradually, I began to release my tight grip on life. I allowed myself to feel the pain of losing a huge part of my identity and, eventually, to let that part of me go and start moving forward. I rid myself of the pressure I’d placed on my shoulders and chose to live in the present, still working towards my goals but giving myself the grace to rest and do the things that made me happy.

The only problem was what made me happy was the trail, and I was stuck in my room all day studying. Not to mention the beautiful Rocky Mountains and majestic national parks were all 1000 miles away. And all of my hiking partners were still in Texas living their own lives.

But I went outside anyway. I would walk my dog around our neighborhood or go on morning runs around the block. And slowly, I discovered that being outdoors, even if it was just in my own front yard, was one of the best forms of self-care. I was overcome with a wave of tranquility when I breathed in the fresh air. I became addicted to the fiery heat in my lungs after a crisp morning run. I didn’t have to travel all the way to a national park. I didn’t even have to be wearing hiking boots. I could stay right by my own home and hone the benefits of the great outdoors.

Maybe you’ve been feeling the drag of the incessant nine to five. Maybe you’ve been feeling lost, without purpose, like your life is just an endless cycle of work. Or maybe you’ve just been dying to get outside but you’re not sure how to do it with your busy lifestyle.

If any of that sounds familiar, then this post is for you. Here, I will explain why and how you can use the outdoors for your mental health in the midst of our busy suburban lifestyles.

WHY MAKE TIME FOR THE OUTDOORS?

Cody exploring our local lake

We joke about the burden of getting outside during our fast-paced lives with things like TikTok memes, going on walks for our “stupid mental health.” But when you step outside with an open mind, the benefits you discover might surprise you.

A few of these are discussed in a blog post by AgeEnvy Digital. She writes that events like the Coronavirus pandemic have taught us the importance of getting out of our homes every once in a while. It’s no coincidence that widespread mental health declines occurred when the world was instructed to remain isolated indoors.

Going outside, even if it’s on a quick walk around the neighborhood, helps to reduce stress. It forces you to step away from the things in your life that worry you like work, school, or other responsibilities and take a much needed break. Sometimes, we all need to be reminded that we aren’t robots. Humans need rest and a change of scenery every once in a while.

It’s also been proven that the outdoors can boost your mood. AgeEnvy explains the mental benefits of sunlight, increasing our levels of serotonin with just a few minutes outside. Additionally, studies show that taking time outdoors helps reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

We may roll our eyes at the idea that a change of scenery can increase our mental health in the midst of a mental health epidemic, but the stats don’t lie. We weren’t meant to live our lives within four walls. And if something as simple as taking a few minutes per day to get some fresh air can give us some relief, why not give it a try?

HOW CAN I GET OUTSIDE?

The good news is you don’t have to dedicate an entire day to an outdoor activity. Often times, when we plan a hike or a camping trip, we mark our calendars for multiple hours, if not multiple days, of activities. While these are lots of fun every once in a while, they’re not the only ways we can get outside. Similarly, you don’t have to travel to a well-known state park or even an official trail to have a satisfying outdoor experience.

If you’re looking to get outside without all the planning and dedication, try these easy outdoor activities that you can do near your own home for just a few minutes a day.

1. Go for a walk

Taking a walk around my neighborhood

While this seems like a simple and uninteresting activity, it can become a very peaceful part of your day if you choose to make a habit of it. It may not feel like much to walk around your neighborhood, this can become a great way for you to get away from the busyness of your life and make time for yourself. Clear your thoughts. Breathe in the fresh air. Make your walk around the block your self-care. And pretty soon, you’ll be looking forward to your daily walk.

Don’t have time to step away from your desk? Find a way to add your walk into your daily routine. For instance, if you live close by, choose to walk to your office or school instead of driving there. It’s a great way to relax your mind before a difficult task and decompress after a long day.

2. Go for a bike ride

No need to wear fancy biker shorts or purchase a 10-speed bike. Hop on your old, rusty bicycle and take a ride around town. Just like your short walk, this doesn’t have to be a long, dedicated activity. Take a slow early morning bike ride to start your day. Bike around downtown after a quick lunch. Or choose to bike to and from work if you live nearby. You’ll be shocked by how relaxed you’ll feel riding through the cool breeze.

3. Move your workout outside

Cardio is always better outside

If you’re looking to add a fitness regime into your day but don’t want to invest big bucks into a gym membership or equipment, you have limitless possibilities waiting for your right outside your door! Whether you’re more of a long distance runner or a HIIT workout kind of girl, there’s always a practical and free way to stay in shape that’s available to you.

Try taking your dog for a run. Instead of doing yoga on your living room floor, set up your yoga mat in your backyard. Do a quick Google search to find the perfect bodyweight workout you can do on your driveway. Just make sure to watch the weather and dress accordingly; and always stay hydrated!

4. Try gardening

Not interested in the movement but still looking for a fun way to get some vitamin D? Try your hand at gardening! Buy some seeds or fresh plants to pot, and designate a time each day to care for and water them. Once your garden begins to grow, you can find a nice spot to read or just rest by your new plants to enjoy the peaceful aroma.

5. Have a bonfire

Don’t forget to include your friends and family in the outdoor fun! Invest in a firepit and whip out the s’mores. Whether it’s winter or summer, circle around the campfire with your loved ones to share stories, cook some fireside snacks or listen to the peaceful crackling sound of the flames. If you’re enjoying your fire after dark, don’t forget to look up and take in the views on a beautiful starry night.

6. Go to your local park

My boyfriend catching some IMPRESSIVE fish

If you have a little more time and want to get out of your neighborhood, take a trip to your local park. Here, you’ll find endless outdoor opportunities. Walk or bike the trails. Try your hand at fishing if your park has a pond or lake. Let your dog explore a new environment and play a few rounds of fetch. Pack up some food, find a cozy spot with a view and treat yourself to a picnic spread.

Or try some of the other activities your park offers. Does your town offer a frisbee golf course? A dog park? A bike playground? Don’t be afraid to try something new!

7. Move your life outside

Although we spend most of our time indoors, many of the tasks we do can be moved outside. Weather permitting, move your work or other responsibilities outdoors! Set up a table on your back lawn and work in the fresh air. Find a spot near a tree and move your studies beneath its shade. Take your coffee or morning toast to the patio and watch the sunrise. Find ways to make your mundane or stressful tasks a little more peaceful and enjoyable by moving them out of your home or office

8. Make time for the outdoor activities you love

Cody and me visiting a nearby state park

Maybe you don’t have time during the workweek or when school gets hectic to go do the more extravagant outdoor activities you love, but that doesn’t mean you should just forget about them. Instead, plan ahead for an exciting outdoor adventure and make time to go. Write it on your calendar, pack your bags and don’t let anything stop you!

If you’ve wanted to visit a state park near you but never found the time, find a date you know you’ll be free and make a commitment to exploring!

Not only is it important to get outside, but it’s also important to make time for the things we love. If there’s nothing you’d rather do than camp, make plans to pitch your tent in your favorite campground near you. And if you can’t get enough of hiking, add a weekend hike to your schedule. Always remember that there’s nothing wrong with adding the things you love to your to-do list!

If you’re looking for more convenient outdoor activities to try, check out this list of 100 things to do outside at home.

Life can get crazy sometimes, and spending time on ourselves can feel like our lowest priority. But I learned this year that even if you have loads of work to do or you just want to work hard to figure your life out, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is rest and do what makes you happy.

The best advice I’ve gotten is to imagine spending that 15 to 30 minutes a day doing an outdoor activity you love as being another important and productive part of your day. Taking care of yourself and checking in on your mental health not only allows you to be more productive in your studies and work, but it makes you less miserable doing them.

If nothing else, recognize the benefits of the outdoors (even your own backyard), and take advantages of them. And no matter how busy your schedule is, make time for what makes you happy.

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