September 7, 2020

EPSTEIN | Take a Hike

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The vast majority of Cornell students who have chosen to return to campus this fall arrived with sky-high anxiety. The challenges of hybrid online and in-person courses, new social-distancing rules which are prevalent in nearly every facet of the college experience, family financial hardships and, of course, the concern for health and the health of our loved ones is on everybody’s mind. For incoming freshmen, it’s all of the above with the added test of the fall being their first time living independently, without an established support system. Students, professors and faculty, we’ll all be rapidly adjusting to new routines on top of the regular rigor of higher education. Let’s agree that it’s going to be extremely stressful, and that maintaining mental health is vital to making the most out of learning in person.

Most of us returning to Cornell have already developed some healthy coping mechanisms for college-related stress. But for many who used gyms (Teagle will be missed), parties and large social gatherings — and many other forms of de-stressing involving close proximity to others — there’ll be uncertainty as to where that fix will come from.

As a nature buff, I’d like the reader to consider taking a hike.

There’s abundant and increasing evidence that exposure to the outdoors helps reduce anxiety, aggression, agitation, and depression. In April 2019, a Frontiers in Psychology study found that just 20 minutes in nature could significantly lower the hormone cortisol (a stress indicator), responsible for the feelings of stress and anxiety. In the study, researchers asked 36 people to spend at least 10 minutes in a natural setting three times a week, for a total of eight weeks. Participants were asked not to exercise prior to their excursions, and they were given the opportunity to do whatever they liked within the setting, as long as they were directly interacting with nature (no phones, reading, conversations, etc …). Some chose just to sit and take in their surroundings while others chose to walk around. Participants had the freedom of choosing whatever location they liked so long as their chosen setting had some form of green, even small patches of grass next to where they worked. Each time they went out, researchers took saliva samples to measure cortisol both before and after. The study found that the optimal time of nature exposure was between 20 to 30 minutes, correlating with the biggest drop in cortisol levels.

Many students looking for an exercise hit may say that they can get all that they’re looking for indoors via resistance bands or stackable dumbbells, which of course are great for strength training. But in terms of cardio, nothing beats burning calories outside, in a natural setting. Combining nature with an activity like running, to put icing on the cake, compounds the cortisol-lowering effect of the outdoors. A study published in Extreme Physiology & Medicine back in 2013 came to the conclusion after citing numerous reputable sources that, “outdoor natural environments may provide some of the best all-round health benefits by increasing physical activity levels with lower levels of perceived exertion, altering physiological functioning including stress reduction, restoring mental fatigue, and improving mood and self-esteem and perceived health.”

For any Cornellian thinking of heeding this advice, you’re in luck. Without leaving our campus, we have access to a myriad of beautiful natural settings. Consider taking a break from studying walking in the Botanical gardens, or, if you’re living on North Campus, walking a few minutes to Beebe Lake and the adjacent Triphammer Falls, and stopping to watch the waterfalls on the Cascadilla Gorge Trail. As you start getting more into the weeds of spending time in nature, potentially literally, try venturing out into the greater Ithaca area. For those concerned about public transportation, some prime natural settings within walking distance of Cornell include Stewart Park on the shore of Cayuga Lake, the Ithaca Falls Natural Area, Buttermilk Falls and Robert Treman State Park. For those with means of transport or those that don’t mind exceptionally long (yet beautiful) walks, I recommend checking out the East Ithaca Nature Preserve and the surrounding area.

Whatever your plans are for dealing with stress this year, stay safe, stay observant of your mental health and don’t be afraid to ask for help. And if you find yourself with a rare sliver of free time and are feeling cooped up, see what the outdoors has to offer.

Joshua Dov Epstein is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, and can be reached at jde74@cornell.edu. His column, Heterodox, appears every other Tuesday this semester.