6 Ways Camping Improves Health & Circadian Rhythm

by Nanci

Albert Einstein famously said: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

In today’s fast-paced world of screens and schedules, we often miss the importance of reconnecting with nature and its many benefits. A few minutes in nature on a hike or even just sitting outside can be beneficial. Yet, the most pronounced benefits come from longer exposure to nature’s beauty, and camping is one of the best ways to get them.

Camping … for Health?

Camping may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ways to improve your health, but perhaps it should!

The Benefits of Camping

Besides being a great budget-friendly family activity, going camping offers a unique way to reconnect with nature. Surprisingly, research has now found several proven benefits to this simple and fun activity:

1. Light Therapy for Circadian Rhythm

A 2013 study from the University of Colorado Boulder examined how camping affects circadian rhythm. They found that participants who camped for a week noticed major improvements in sleep patterns in circadian biology.

In fact, sleep researcher Dr. Michael Breus explains that camping for one week (away from artificial light) resets circadian clocks. More specifically, the study found that:

  • The melatonin levels (of subjects of the study) rose two hours earlier when camping than on regular nights around artificial light.
  • Study participants sleep schedules all normalized during the camping week. In fact, early birds and night owls all adjusted to the same schedule.

Major health problems (from heart disease to cancer) are often linked to poor sleep quality or lack of sleep. A simple activity like camping may help the body normalize sleep patterns and improve health.

2. Forest Bathing Stress Relief

The Japanese have a national practice called “Forest Bathing” or shinrin-yoku which has been a national public health practice for them since the 1980s. The Japanese have spent millions of dollars studying the effects of this time in nature with surprising findings:

  • A weekend in the woods naturally increased the presence of natural killer (NK) cells in the body. This increase lasted for up to a month after a single weekend exposure to nature.
  • Forest air contains phytoncide, a natural compound from plants and trees. Some research shows that inhaling phytoncide can improve immune system function.
  • Another study found reduced cortisol, blood pressure, pulse, and other measures improved with just 30 minutes a day in nature. In fact, comparing metrics from a person spending a day in the city and a day in nature, it found: “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.”

3. Improved Sleep

As mentioned above, camping away from artificial light improves the circadian clock. Logically, it also improves sleep.

Sure, sleeping on the ground in a thin sleeping bag doesn’t sound like the perfect way to relax, but studies show that people achieve deeper and more restorative sleep in nature. One factor may be just that people are not staying up as late watching TV while camping. This alone improves sleep and increases melatonin production.

You may not be the most comfortable while camping, but you are likely getting biologically better sleep.

4. Time to Disconnect & Family Time

One of my personal favorite parts of camping is just the time to disconnect from technology and spend time with family. Sure, we all know we should put down the phone and spend more time with the real people we live with, but this can be hard to do when wrapped up in the business of daily life.

We got each of our children a good quality hiking backpack with their own gear (here’s a good list if you are interested) and they love going camping and getting a chance to use it all.

5. A Breath of Fresh Air

Another tangible benefit of camping is the abundance of fresh air. Experts warn that indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air. They encourage opening windows and ventilating our homes often. Spending time outdoors, especially overnight, is a great way to get the benefits of fresh air. Areas with a lot of trees have a higher oxygen concentration in the environment, and therefore it’s easier to breathe and relax.

6. Exercise in Natural Beauty

One of the best things about camping? The natural boredom. Without TVs, video games, and the many distractions of home, we naturally tend to want to walk around and explore. This naturally leads to exercise in a high oxygen, natural light environment that makes movement even more beneficial!

Tips for Camping

Ready to spend some time in the great outdoors? Here are a few tips to get the maximum benefits:

  1. Ditch the artificial light: The studies all noted the biggest benefit from camping away from all artificial light, including flashlights. Stick to natural light sources like a campfire, candles, and natural lanterns to avoid the bright LED flashlights.
  2. Cook natural foods: Don’t use camping as an excuse to eat marshmallows (unless they’re made like this, of course ? ) and other junk food. Campfires are wonderful for roasting natural foods like meat, vegetables, and even fruit. (My kids love roasted apples on the campfire.)
  3. Stay for the long haul: The studies all showed the most benefits from three or more days of camping. Plan a week long family trip once a year and enjoy all of the benefits!
  4. Get good gear: Few things are worse than being caught in a tent that leaks during a rainstorm. Invest in some good camping gear and it will last for years.

Ways to Get (Some) of the Benefits of  Camping While at Home

Despite all of the benefits, I know a few people who adamantly refuse to camp and even hate the idea of braving the great outdoors! If a team of wild horses couldn’t tear you away from the comforts of home, there are a few things you can do to get some of the benefits while at home.

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