A new study suggests that the return to tradition meme really may have something to it — going outdoors can tremendously improve your life. According to researcher Jens Freese and others, spending time living ‘in paleolithic conditions’ in the wild may help to reduce chronic stress and make you a healthier person.

The Great Outdoors Key to Improved Health and Fitness

‘Chronic stress has become a central problem of our modern society,’ the researchers explain. While adaptation to stress is an ‘integral part of human evolution’, recent drastic changes to environmental conditions over the last 12,000 years, with the dawn of agriculture, and especially in the last 150 years with industrialisation, have made stress a chronic part of everyday life. 

Where our ancient ancestors were ‘more exposed to acutely life-threatening stress stimuli’ – think an unexpected encounter with a sabre-tooth tiger or cave bear – the ‘psychosocial stressors’ of modern life are ‘more chronically enduring’. It’s well established that chronic stress is regulated to numerous conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes and depression. Chronic stress, including chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, also makes it more difficult to build muscle and even in severe cases lead to muscle wasting.

And here’s where the great outdoors comes into play.

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Modern-day San hunter-gatherers in Botswana. Do they look stressed or overweight to you?

The study aimed to mimic ancient stress conditions by taking 15 volunteers on a four-day hike in a National Park, with a routine designed to simulate a hunter-gatherer lifestyle outdoors. The specific interventions included the following requirements:

“1. During the intervention, subjects should remain exclusively in the wild.

2. In order to simulate hunting and gathering behavior, subjects should travel a distance of at least 20 km per day.

3. The first meal was not to be consumed before 12 am to simulate a period of hunting and gathering.

4. The diet should be based on the principles of a “Paleolithic diet” as defined by Cordain, including lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils (coconut oil, olive oil) and sweet potatoes.

5. The sleep-wake cycle should be adapted to the natural circadian rhythm according to sunrise and sunset.”

the great outdoors
The Great Outdoors

One of the most striking results concerned weight loss. After just four days, mean body weight and fat mass decreased by 2.3 and 2.2 kg respectively.

Interestingly, levels of cortisol – the main hormone associated with stress – increased on the first day of the hike, compared to baseline, and gradually returned to baseline levels by the fourth day. It would be fruitful to investigate whether, over a longer period of time in the wilderness, cortisol levels decrease below the baseline and remain there.

One bodybuilder who famously used to disappear into the wilderness for long periods of time was Mr America Chuck Sipes, who used to lead expeditions into the California forests with groups of disadvantaged inner-city youth.

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Chuck Sipes

He raved about the restorative effects of the expeditions, including the effects of being forced to deviate heavily from his normal five-meal-a-day bodybuilding diet.

The results of this study are clear, although further research should be done to corroborate the results and pursue the implications further. Albeit in a novel and striking way, this study confirms what we already know about the dangers and damages caused by chronic stress. Reducing your stress levels is one of the best things you can do to improve your quality of life.

In my own personal experience, while completing a master’s degree in a major city, going for walks outdoors in the city’s nature reserve would elevate my mood despite being under considerable stress. I often advise my friends who aren’t necessarily into fitness to at least try to spend more time outdoors — even indirectly by encouraging the adoption of a pet such as a dog.

Going outdoors on a regular basis is crucial to my routine and I attribute much of my high energy levels and healthy mental state on this habit.

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