Maybe it’s because I’m a native Oregonian. Maybe it’s that Cherokee blood in me. Or maybe it’s just because I’m human. The outdoors, and especially the woods, have incredible healing powers. Whenever possible, I take part of my workouts outdoors. I love urban hikes, seeking out chip and dirt trails with steep inclines as my cardio for the day. Today, I ran the stairs at Mt. Tabor in Portland. Boasting 282 stairs, I always do five sets (including walking the quarter-ish mile at the top) for a total of 1,410 steps up and another 1,410 down.
I’m not alone in believing strongly that the outdoors heal. Ultra runner Nikki Kimball noted in her documentary Finding Traction that running, specifically in the woods, helped dramatically with crippling mental illness. “The woods heal,” she said, encouraging anyone, regardless of health status, to go outdoors. (You can watch the entire documentary on YouTube now!). There are also numerous studies backing up this idea, including “The Way of Nature as Healing Power.”
As someone with an eating disorder, the deadliest of mental illnesses, I couldn’t agree more. Although for me, I believe eating disorders are a disorder for life that you either learn to manage—or not. There is no “healed” from an eating disorder, but healing? Definitely.
The “Why” Doesn’t Really Matter—It’s the “How”
It’s fun and informative (at least to me) to read up on why getting outdoors, and especially to wooded areas, can help heal you physically, emotionally and spiritually. However, what really matters is “how” to do it. It can be challenging and even dangerous in some places. I certainly don’t support anyone to head outdoors “no matter what.” Oftentimes, I’m equipped with pepper spray just in case. If you do head outdoors, prepare for the area, the time of day, know the basics of handling various animals, and almost always have pepper spray and your phone with you.
Now that we’ve ticked off the safety basics, let’s get back to the more enjoyable aspect of this topic: Simply getting outdoors. There are always options. Weather permitting (and you can often outfit yourself to adapt to the weather—I have an ultra marathon running friend based in Alaska!), swap out your gym cardio and even strength training for the outdoors.
Try a brisk hike instead of a session on the treadmill or elliptical. Research public stairs in nearby parks instead of climbing the “stairway to hell” at the gym. Rent a bike or buy a cheap one to complement your indoor spin class. Try body weight strength training at the park instead of in the weight room. Practice yoga outdoors at a park or other space surrounded by natural beauty. My favorite space to practice outdoors is an amphitheater nestled in a rose garden in Portland. It’s nearly always deserted at dawn.
Ditch the Tech
Besides your phone for emergencies, try to go tech-free at least sometimes when heading outdoors. The woods don’t require any supplementation. When you’re outdoors, set your phone to silent or, better yet, airplane mode. You should only use it for emergencies—so hopefully you’ll never touch it!
The first time, particularly if you’re a music junkie, it might be unnerving. Listen to the sounds of your footsteps, the animals, the sheer wildness of it all. A workout in the woods is feeding your entire self in a way no other workout can. You don’t need or want any distractions. Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, CCR or any other performer is no match for the sounds of birds rustling in the trees or the wild rabbit scooting through dry leaves.
And, okay, I cheated. Today, I went back to my car to get my phone (at Mt. Tabor there are enough people and it’s a small enough geographic area that you don’t need to carry a phone for emergencies) just to take a photo at the top rim. Someone had recently placed an old piano, adorned with flowers, and the words “Please play me” painted across it. This is the kind of unnatural, man-made beauty that you sometimes stumble upon outdoors.
Now doesn’t that beat a session at the gym?
The moment I mark as my “beginning of healing” from anorexia, the first time I really thought that I could begin to crawl my way out of that grave, it was at the end of my favorite urban hike. Close to the International Rose Test Garden, there’s a tiny playground with swings big enough for adult hips. It’s on a hill crest that overlooks downtown. I often stop and swing for awhile, and this particular time I felt the grip of the eating disorder begin to falter. It was here I wrote the poem “To Break Fast,” which appears in my second book of poetry What Makes an Always.
To Break Fast
Life crept back into me like a child
slipping into the Big Bed in the middle of the night. Slowly,
silently, so as not to disturb
the sleeping giants within. I was light
in a way starvation never allowed,
the bony fingers of dangerous dreams slipping
off my shrunken arms. Just as nightmares
aren’t welcome when a girl spoons close
to her mother’s sleeping body, as they’re scared
into submission by her father’s monstrous snores,
my desire to vanish lifted like a morning stretch,
dissipating with a yawn at the pink, dawning light.
(Photo: Personal … from this morning)