Earth Day, which takes place on April 22, is a daylong celebration of the planet that sustains us all. Earth Day organizers hope that by celebrating the planet and raising awareness about its fragile ecosystems, greater efforts can be made to secure clean water to drink, air to breathe, and land to enjoy for future generations.

Over the years, organizer Earth Day Network’s definition of environment has expanded to include other aspects of the world we live in, including efforts to make schools and communities more sustainable and support green jobs initiatives. Campaigns to stop air and water pollution are also at the center of Earth Day’s focus.

April 22 is a wonderful day to not only appreciate the nature that surrounds us all, pausing to think how we might better care for our only home in the solar system, but also to remember how wonderful it is to spend time outside. Enjoying time in nature has been shown to reduce stress and foster feelings of wellbeing.

How did Earth Day begin?

Earth Day began in 1970, and is generally credited with initiating the modern environmental movement, according to Earth Day Network.

In the 1960s, the United States experienced broad cultural shifts, and along with the social disruptions wrought by flower children and rock n’ roll music, protests against the Vietnam War were rocking the nation. Gas-guzzling classic cars cruised the roads and air pollution was an accepted by-product of prosperity, recalls Earth Day Network.

But Rachel Carson’s classic book Silent Spring released in 1962, setting the stage for broader environmental advocacy. A few years after the book published, a devastating oil spill in Santa Barbara, California spurred a Wisconsin U.S. senator named Gaylord Nelson to harness the same energy borne from war protests to force environmental causes onto the national political agenda.

Twenty million people flooded the streets of cities and towns across the United States that first Earth Day in 1970, uniting advocates that had been working toward related but separate causes like dirty power plants, raw sewage, and toxic waste dumps. Politicians from both sides of the aisle united after that historic day, passing landmark legislation to create the Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

Since then, the movement has grown, although at times suffered from divisions both within the environmental advocacy community and the country at-large, according to Earth Day Network. Organizers hope Earth Day will continue to serve as a focal point for environmental activism, helping every year to re-energize people working to save the planet’s resources for future generations.

How to celebrate Earth Day

Options for taking part in Earth Day range from promoting it on your personal social media channels to joining in a local event. Event listings nationwide can be found here, although it’s only a partial listing.

Earth Day Phoenix will take place on April 25, the Saturday after the official day, which falls on a Wednesday. Festivities take place downtown and will feature music, composting demonstrations, and a beer garden. The Phoenix Zoo also hosted an Earth Day event on April 18. Visitors explored various educational stations while learning about the food chain and what animals need to thrive, as well as environmental basics like reducing, reusing, and recycling.

While Earth Day seeks to raise awareness about the health of the planet, researchers are increasingly uncovering the substantial health benefits people derive from spending time in nature.

Spending time outdoors improves mental health

Between going to work or school, commuting, checking social media accounts and email, and watching all the good shows on television, most people spend the majority of their time indoors. However, research shows that spending even just a few hours a week outside alleviates depression, reduces stress, and boosts a person’s overall mood. There’s even a fancy name for it: ecotherapy.

Ecotherapy, commonly known as green therapy, involves a different kind of prescription—one involving orders to spend more time outside. People with conditions including obesity, fatigue, high-blood pressure, and diabetes may benefit. British researchers found taking strolls outside for as few as five minutes lowered depression in 71% of people studied, reports WebMD.

Another study published in Psychiatry Research has linked a Vitamin D deficiency and depression in some women. Spending time outdoors in the sunshine helps elevate blood levels of this important vitamin and also promotes mindfulness, which is another way of reducing both stress and sadness, according to Everyday Health.

The awe induced by watching the sunset, spending time by the ocean, or traipsing through the wilderness also decreases inflammation in the body, according to research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley. The positive emotions experienced by losing ourselves in the beauty of nature leads to lower levels of cytokines, which are associated with the immune response to fight inflammation.

Elevated levels of cytokines have been linked to arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and depression. Researcher Jennifer Stellar says:

“Awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment.”

Ways to spend more time outside

  1. Walk

Taking a walk after dinner, perhaps including your family or any pets, is a wonderful way to enjoy the cool night air and unwind after a long day. Time your stroll with the sunset and enjoy a spectacular light show along with the gentle reminder to take your daily dose of nature.

  1. Garden

Beautify your backyard all while enjoying the health benefits of being outdoors by planting a garden. Keeping in mind the Earth Day theme, consider planting low-water use plants if you live in a desert or other low-rainfall area. Low-water plants can be both beautiful and good for the environment.

  1. Take your hobbies outside

Whether you enjoy reading, sewing, or another portable hobby, consider sitting outside while partaking in your favorite activity. Create a nice sitting area with a comfortable chair, perhaps some flowers, and even a wind chime or other decorative element to turn an outdoor area into an extension of your living space.

  1. Exercise outside

Instead of bicycling in one place at the gym, consider hitting the streets on a bike. Maybe you enjoy hiking and would like to explore surrounding mountains, forests, or deserts. If yoga or cardio is more your speed, try finding an outdoors exercise class on Meetup.com or venturing to the park, solo or with a few friends.

What are your favorite ways to spend time outside?

Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

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