Being Outside—Happiness, Health, and Hazards

Photo of Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director

Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

Director’s Note

I’m happiest when I’m outside. I love hiking and biking in natural areas, learning new plant and animal species, recognizing those I already know, and soaking in the peace and beauty. I’m fortunate that my job and life involve a lot of outside time, and I love to watch Arboretum visitors experience similar pleasures.

The past 20 or so years have seen a lot of research and popular press focused on why being outside is good for us. I recently read The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams. The author reviews studies that demonstrate the importance of spending time in nature and incorporates her own experiences. Summarizing a quick list of benefits from the book shows that spending time in nature can: 1) improve our short-term memory, 2) lead to lower levels of the hormone cortisol (a de-stressing effect), 3) improve mood by alleviating directed-attention fatigue (which occurs when our brains constantly manage competing stimuli), 4) decrease chances of nearsightedness in children and slow progression of myopia in adults, 5) reduce inflammation, 6) reduce fatigue, 6) lessen depression and anxiety, 7) lower blood pressure, and 8) improve focus.

As we spend more time in buildings and in front of screens, as schools reduce or eliminate recess time to focus on test scores, it is increasingly important to get outdoors and take advantage of the benefits. The Arboretum is a treasure-trove of opportunities. You can visit alone or with friends and family to explore the trails, gardens, and restorations, attend classes and lectures, send kids to camps, and enjoy naturalist-led walks. And while you’re having a good time, you could be lowering blood pressure and improving memory and vision!

As much as we appreciate and enjoy being in nature, we’re also aware of potential risks. Along with trail hazards and rough terrain, there are toxic plants, hot sun, and disease-carrying insects. Unfortunately, fear of these outdoor “dangers” keeps some people inside.

Of course, it’s important to know about the risks posed in the outdoors and prepare for them. Learn to recognize plants like poison ivy and wild parsnip and don’t touch them. Wear sunscreen and clothing that covers your skin to avoid sunburns. Watch your step on trails.

Be sure to take precautions to avoid mosquitos and ticks. Depending on the time of day and weather conditions, wear long sleeves, netting, and other protective clothing to keep pesky mosquitos off of you. While I personally don’t use repellents—I’m usually looking for insects when I’m outside and don’t want them to stay away from me—many people are more comfortable using them, so find the type you like. Wear closed-toe shoes and tuck pants into socks to hinder ticks.

When you return inside, always thoroughly check for ticks (on yourself, your children, and everyone else you’ve been outside with). Wash off insect repellent. Learn to recognize the different kinds of ticks you might see in an area. And learn the signs of tick and mosquito-borne diseases. If you have symptoms, see a doctor.

But don’t let nature’s bothersome aspects keep you inside. The rewards and benefits far outweigh the hassles.

Here are some statistics. Rates are increasing for illnesses transmitted by fleas, mosquitoes, and ticks in the U.S., from 27,388 in 2004 to 96,075 in 2016 (Rosenberg et al. 2018). Lyme disease accounts for 36,429 of the 2016 cases, and Zika virus for 41,680 (almost all of the Zika virus cases were in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and American Somoa). Our biggest worry in Wisconsin is Lyme disease—in 2016, 16 out of every 100,000 people (0.016 percent) in Wisconsin had Lyme disease. It is rarely fatal, but can cause long-term symptoms such as arthritis and nerve inflammation.

Here are some more statistics, for perspective. In 2017, 40,100 people were killed in car accidents, and in 2016, 840 people were killed in bike accidents (note these statistics represent fatalities, while the vectored disease statistics represent illnesses and not fatalities). But I personally still use my car and bike because the benefits outweigh the risks for me. And I minimize the risks by using a seat belt, driving defensively and carefully, using a bike helmet, and watching out for bumpy roads and inattentive drivers.

The risks that come with being outside are less perilous, and the benefits to well-being, health, and community are many. For me, it’s an easy choice to be informed and take precautions, so that I can spend as much time in nature as possible.

—Karen Oberhauser, Arboretum director