Summit Club member Sarah Harrner tells us what she’s learned by setting herself a challenge to get outside every day for a year.
A pile of Kathmandu packs. A halfway rest to Scout camp. A cheeky backpack photobomb. These caught our attention as a winning entry for our 30th anniversary photo competition. By getting to know Sarah Harrner, we’ve discovered a passion for getting outdoors that has left us truly inspired.
Firstly, what’s happening in this pic?
The photo was taken on a Scout camp. We stopped for a goof around and I took the snap. Seeing all those Kathmandu packs in one spot I couldn't resist! The people photobombing in the back are my husband, son, daughter and some of their Scouting buddies.
The oldest pack in the pile is the one my son was using. It was handed down to him by my husband who got it as a youngin' and who went on to become a professional outdoorsy guy!
And you have set yourself a challenge to do something awesome outside everyday for a year? How did that come about?
In my day job I teach mental health and resilience workshops. So I talk everyday about the importance of getting out in nature as an important preventative medicine strategy. Last year, I decided that the best way I could role model what I tell everybody else to do is to get outside and do something awesome everyday myself. I turned it into a challenge and I started keeping a blog on Facebook.
What have been the biggest challenges?
Although I am a Wellbeing Consultant by profession, I have just as many challenges to my health and wellbeing as anyone. I am a qualified personal trainer and yoga teacher, but my job now is predominantly a desk job. I work full-time. I have two kids and I am completing my post-graduate studies in public health. I need to deliberately invest in my wellbeing just like everyone else.
I learnt you need to make getting outside easy to do. I bought gumboots and umbrellas and rain coats and warm clothes. It is amazing how good shoes and a warm coat can change your experience.
Have you noticed any difference to your wellbeing since you started the challenge?
This started as a gratitude project. It was about appreciating everything that was in my own backyard. I do feel much happier, I get excited about each day and I know my anxiety is much more under control. But the biggest benefit was one I didn't predict. That is the time I have spent doing stuff with my kids. I have switched going to the gym and to yoga with getting out and about with them and that has been the biggest source of happiness. We just do more and we laugh more. Probably the best moment of this challenge was when my little girl said to me, "Mummy I love how you find something good in everyday."
You often see things about the importance of "me time", but I think we need more "we time" — time doing more things with the people you love that you all enjoy. Because ultimately, relationships matter most.
Would you recommend other people take up the challenge?
Yes I would recommend it. This challenge is about doing more of what you love more often. So many health challenges are based on deprivation - you can't do this or you can't do that. Say no to this, say no to that. I think we need to say yes more. Yes to giving things a go. Yes to new experiences and places.
Doing it every day takes away the decision making. You've got to make it a habit.
So your work is about helping people enjoy better health by spending time outdoors? What have you learned about the health benefits of being outdoors?
The obvious things are the fresh air and exercise and Vitamin D, which improves our mood. People who walk in nature have improvements to their mood above those who walk in urban areas, so we know it is not simply exercise. Perhaps it’s because we are less on high alert in nature and our brains have space to think clearly. Patients who have a view overlooking a natural environment heal faster than those who have no view. So perhaps there is a visual element. Or maybe it is the sense of awe and beauty that we get which just makes us feel positive and grateful and alive.
If we don't get enough sunshine (even the kind we get from a grey cloudy day), that can send our body all out of whack. As a rule of thumb, one researcher says every hour you spend outside in the middle of the day will give you 30 minutes more of quality sleep each night.
How do your kids benefit from your time outside?
My son has ADHD so getting outside is particularly important for us. Exercise has been shown to be just as effective at treating ADHD as medication in many children. Exercise is important for helping kids learn. When we are physically active, we release a substance called BDNF which, for want of a better term, fertilises our brain's memory center and plays a role in generating neurons — yes, making more brain cells! It also blunts the responsiveness of the brain's emotion center so we are simultaneously sharper, and emotionally more stable — two key ingredients for a better learning experience.
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