GREEN

How Technology Can Help You Tune Back Into Nature

08/09/2014 10:53 am ET
kapulya via Getty Images

The summer months have an uncanny way of making us realize how much time we don't spend outdoors. The days are longer and the grass is greener, yet we're still chained to our desks (despite how much we'd rather be soaking up rays of natural sunlight in lieu of fluorescent bulbs).

By now, we all know how much better off we would be if we did spend more time among the elements. Living near nature -- and taking advantage of it -- helps us stay physically fit, improves our mood, boosts our brainpower and keeps our sense of wonder alive. Last year, British mental health experts confirmed that getting back to nature through walking and gardening can be more effective in combating symptoms of stress and depression than medication.

Yet, we seem to be spending less and less time outside -- children, particularly. It only takes five minutes of outdoor play each day to help with a child's physical and mental development. But growing numbers of young ones don't even log that little amount of time. "More kids today are interested in the natural world than ever before... but far fewer are experiencing it directly, on their own or with their friends, and that's what counts: this is about more than nature," naturalist, broadcaster and author Stephen Moss told The Guardian. "Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves."

Richard Louv, the founder of the "nature deficit disorder" principle, put it best when he said, “The future will belong to the nature-smart -- those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”

But while technology can get in the way of our ability to experience nature, it can also enhance it. There are many ways that modern-day advances not only connect us with the natural environment, but also create a more immersive and fulfilling experience in in the environment. Ready to reconnect with nature? Here are three ways technology can help take your outdoor experience to the next level.

Defy human limits.

skydiving

Let's face it -- man could not enjoy the experience of flight without the help of technology. From hang gliding to skydiving, the "smart" equipment is just as important -- if not more so -- than the person using it. Think about the technology and design that went into developing hang glider wings, for instance. The wings are actually a nylon fabric parachute modified into a triangular airfoil, and their design was inspired by research completed by NASA engineer Francis Rogallo in the 1960s. The "delta wing" parachute is lightweight, durable, easily maneuvered by human hands and the reason the sport of hang gliding exists at all.

While extreme sports certainly carry risks, they can also provide a sense of transcendence, personal identity and motivation. There's something to be said about being able to see the world from a bird's eye view.

Chart new territory.

hiking woods

Hiking is one of the best nature-based activities for the mind, body and spirit. And sometimes, veering off the beaten path and making one of your own can help you connect with Mother Nature on an even deeper level. GPS technology -- accessible to the masses now, in the form of watches and handheld devices -- can help you do this while staying safe.

Global positioning systems can do just about anything these days. From the basics of reading information from the 30 satellites orbiting the Earth to coming equipped with touchscreen surfaces and geotagging cameras, handheld GPS systems from companies like Garmin, Magellan, DeLorme and Rand McNally can be an adventurer's best friend. With a little sense of direction, you can quell your worries and just enjoy being in the moment, exploring the natural space that lies ahead.

Ditch the treadmill.

run outside

There's no need to feel restricted to cardio machines in your neighborhood gym with such a wide selection of fitness apps available on your smartphone (yes, we're encouraging you to use your phone this time). Whether you're focused on calories burned, steps taken or overall pace, there's a program to take those details off your mind and let you enjoy your activity in the present moment.

Apps like Argus, Fitocracy, MapMyFitness and Moves have tracking and analytics features that can help even the biggest gym rat step outside and work up a sweat while immersed in Mother Nature. Many of these apps also allow you to explore local running trails and routes other people have mapped beforehand. You'll feel far more revitalized surrounded by green and breathing in fresh air, than contained within a gym's four walls.

But what if you can't ditch the office?

nature on computer

This is meta -- it is possible to use technology to channel nature to combat the health effects of too much tech use. Use your computer screen to help you test out the 20-20-20 rule, advice originally given to tech blogger Amit Agarwal by his doctor to combat eyestrain. Every 20 minutes, open one of your favorite natural images on your monitor -- a beach, an open field, a mountain peak, you name it. Slide your chair back 20 feet (or as far as reasonably possible in your office setup) and simply gaze at the image for 20 seconds without distraction. Not only will your eyes thank you, but you'll be reminded of the world that's waiting for you outside of your office.

And if you're feeling particularly impulsive with your decision-making -- ready to send a hasty email or pounce on an online sale -- take a moment first to mentally check out by looking at a natural image on your computer screen. A new study from researchers at Utah State University found that it may help provide an increased sense of self-control, Fast Company reported.

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