When I began my health journey nearly a year ago, I wasn’t sure what direction I would take. Honestly, I thought I would give up, go back to my old habits, and be on MS medication by now.
It was my pattern. To try something new, get discouraged, and then give up on it.
This particular venture worked out differently. I think because I am blogging it allows for a level of accountability, perhaps if I didn’t maintain this blog I would have given up sooner. Back in November, I went through a period where I didn’t post as often as I wanted. It may have been discouragement (“is this something really worth doing? I am putting a lot of time into something with little to no feedback”), but I think I was also just busy with life and not sure if I wanted to continue regardless.
Somehow I stuck through it and I’ve continued to notice positive changes. I’ve lost weight, I feel happier, I feel more balanced, and I think I’ve fully accepted my diagnosis. I was on the path of acceptance several years ago, but I really embodied the “things I cannot change” attitude since August.
Returning to Nature
There are many different factors for why I have stuck with my diet, exercise, and attitude change, but if I had to distill it to two different ideas it would be Jai and where I am spending more of my time: outside.
Back when I started running around 2012, I would train at my school’s gym. I would run on the treadmill, use the equipment for crosstraining, and swim several days a week. I would only run outside when I had a race and each time I was miserable because of the weather, uneven ground, and dealing with other runners.
Back in August, when my mom and I started training for our first half-marathon in years, we had to start the training outside.
I say “we had to” because neither of us belonged to a gym, owned a treadmill, or had the means to do either.
Running outside was cheap and easy, as we only needed to pay for shoes and a yearly parking permit. The advantage to the location we chose was the drivable road split between runners and drivers, so it was safer than running on the regular streets or sidewalks. The road also went through the woods, so if there were no other runners/walkers in the morning, we’d be alone in the quiet of nature as the only cars most mornings were the park workers.
Three times a week we’d get up early, meet up in the parking lot, and go for a run. Most mornings we’d see squirrels and birds along the way, but sometimes we’d see a deer and once we heard a coyote nearby. It’s always exciting to point these out to Jai, though he’s still at an age where it’s hard to capture his attention or interest in certain things.
Additionally, we would cross-train at the same location by hiking the mountain once every other week at the same location. Deer, birds, morning fog, sunrise…
The sense of accomplishment we’d get from hiking to the top of the mountain made all the trouble worth it, especially when we’d notice that we stopped to rest less often each time we went up the mountain.
Small victory in our physical fitness.
I never really thought about it, but I think by running outside in such a peaceful location does me a lot of good emotionally, not just physically. Pushing the stroller and forcing myself to run up hills, something I never did with a treadmill, made me into a better runner. But it also calmed me down a lot as well or at least be receptive to calming down.
I grew up spending a lot of time outdoors, but as I became an adult, I also became that cliche: spending more time inside and losing touch with the natural world. Especially since I moved to a major metropolitan area. What I gained in access to culture, food, and experiences, I lost in what made my childhood so enjoyable.
This is part of the reason why I credit Jai as well: I want him to experience the same love I had of the natural world and enjoy being outside as much as I did. This means that I take him outside at least once a day so he can explore and enjoy what the world has to offer. So far he seems to love the outdoors as much as I do, which I am hoping remains a lifelong love.
Embracing the Natural World
I cannot say that it is because of my time outside I am healing emotionally and physically, but I can say that it’s contributed. What works for me may not work for someone else, because for some people, being outdoors is a miserable experience.
Do not do something that makes you miserable – it won’t help bring about change and you’ll be frustrated because of the misery and lack of change. It’s better to find something else that will make you happy in a healthy way.
As a person with MS, being outdoors can be a miserable prospect, especially in hot & humid weather. Southern summers are particularly awful, where stepping outside in the middle of the day can sap all my energy.
What am I saying? Down in the South, thinking about stepping outside can sap all of my energy.
I found a way to work around this so I don’t lose my outdoor time: stepping out in the morning or in the evening when everything cools down; if I need to step outside in the middle of the day with Jai, I make sure to stick to the shade; and I push through my lack of motivation by telling myself it will be worth it in the end. That last one is hard on low-energy days, but pulling out a wading pool or a blanket to lie on in the shade helps a lot.
Correlation = Causation?
I have spent a lot more time outdoors in the past year because of my exercising and exposing Jai to nature. The correlation is this: I spend more time outside and therefore I am feeling better so it must be because of all the time I am spending in nature.
The answer is probably no: the reason why I am feeling better is that I am exercising more which happens to be outside and making healthier diet choices.
While that may actually be the truth, I still associate my feeling better emotionally with the time spent outside.
When I go outside I feel better because I am living in the moment. I am less likely to think about what I need to do next in my day (though sometimes I do because it’s hard to shut off), and more likely to enjoy watching Jai run around and play with some rocks.
Running outdoors forces me to look around and appreciate the sounds and smells, whereas when I was in the gym, I was watching the TV or listening to loud music. I would focus on the next news story or something brought up on the TV and that might frustrate me emotionally.
Outside, while my mom and I would have a conversation while we run, we would stop and appreciate a deer with her fawn as she crossed our path. Going into nature with the attitude of appreciating it forces me to feel interconnected with the natural world and allows me to see the bigger picture of my life.
Toxic Baggage and Moving On
Recently I’ve been grappling with the emotional baggage of toxic situations and how to handle them.
I would keep a narrow perspective on my life, particularly in toxic thinking and allow myself to get sucked into a negative thought cycle or relationships.
By spending time outside, even in my front yard with Jai, it puts my concerns into perspective: none of the toxic thinking is worth the extra time and energy I put into those negative cycles. While I might want to feel bad about slowly extricating myself from bad situations and negative thinking, I realized that I shouldn’t because the emotional energy is not worth it juxtaposed with time spent outdoors.
I am here for a finite amount of time and regardless of what I believe happens afterward, I am only allotted the time I have in this body to appreciate where it’s at now. Each moment is unique and different from every other moment past and present.
I want to look back at my life if I am lucky enough to do so, and be filled with satisfaction for all the time I appreciated living and being. I do not want to look back in regret for the time I wasted worrying about things I couldn’t control.
MS is a disease that takes a lot of time away from me, mainly through fatigue and pain, I don’t need to compound stolen moments by making a choice to let petty things get in the way. Spending more time outside made me more receptive to this perspective shift, whereas I couldn’t see this even a year ago.
If you are looking to make changes in your own life, either physically or emotionally, I would recommend taking a few extra minutes to spend outside each day. Even if you live in a city, see if there’s a local park you can visit that has a tree or two. Sit on a bench, watch everything around you, and listen to the sounds.
While outside, shut your phone off and just be in the moment.
Think of it like meditation. They say that if you have thoughts that pester you, allow the thoughts to happen and release them. Try to just sit and relax once they’ve passed and repeat the cycle when a new set of pestering thoughts enter your head.
Don’t worry about trying not to worry.
It can be hard to shut off those voices that stress you out especially if you are trying to de-stress and shift your perspective. It may take a few times, a couple weeks, or several months of spending a few moments outside before you notice any difference in how you think or feel.
The end goal is to build up more and more time where you just appreciate the moment. From there you can put different scenarios of your life in perspective and hopefully make the changes you want to make. You may even find that the changes you initially wanted to make are no longer relevant and re-prioritize your life in a way that’s unexpected.
I hadn’t expected that living in the moment would be ideal when I started my journey. I just wanted to be satisfied with myself to be a positive role model for Jai. But I recognize that in order to be satisfied, I have to live in the moment because living for the future or being focused on the past prevents me from appreciating where I currently am. I can’t move forward if I don’t acknowledge my current emotional location.
Spending time outside won’t be a cure-all so it may do nothing for you and that’s okay. But being outside and appreciating nature is rarely a bad thing to do (unless it’s unsafe), you may get some fun experiences out of it. Trying to spend more time outside may not be right at this moment for yourself, but you might find revisiting it in a few months or years is a better time.
Take your time and embrace what makes you different (or similar) to everyone else when you are ready. How you get there should not matter.
How do you feel when you spend time outdoors and how does that help you reconnect with yourself? What have you learned about yourself from time spent outside? Leave your thoughts below.
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