Miles of Processing

British Columbia is, arguably, the greatest running destination in the world.

British Columbia is, arguably, the greatest running destination in the world.


Originally submitted as part of research through Graduate Program at MSU Mankato

Miles of Processing:
Using Running as a Form of Therapy

The first three miles are the toughest. It is a struggle to get into the right rhythm; connecting my breathing with my stride takes patience and understanding. For those first three miles, it is a delicate increase to a harmonious crescendo – a perfect connection between my physical strength and mental acuity. Sometimes, three miles is more than enough. Not because I’m winded or tired or too lazy to continue, but because my brain reaches the capacity for which it can reassess ruminations seemingly at a point I am incapable of controlling. Sometimes that crescendo of understanding comes much later— maybe six or seven miles in—but when I do approach that desired bout of clarity, I can feel a substantial shift in my overall demeanor. I call these mini-epiphany reaching sessions my Processing Miles, or PM’s.

            A crucial ingredient to the success of PM’s is the environment. I have never been able to find solace in running inside, whether on a treadmill or an indoor track. The most important part of running, for me, is the connection with nature. Living in a rural area allows me the unbeatable luxury of running endless country roads lined with oversized birch trees, sweeping meadows and endless acres of farmland. The surrounding scenery plays an integral part in my pursuit of running, as it directly affects my ability to relieve stress.

            In this instance, running is my own personal form of restoration due to my ability to get away from distractions and focus on one important thing in that moment. To participate in this experience, I must engage in a subconscious practice of moving on from what Kaplan (1995) refers to as “directed attention fatigue” (p. 170). Essentially, the idea is that from an evolutionary standpoint, humans were not designed to withstand attention to one singular detail or project for a long period of time. In retaliation, we have become susceptible to inevitable mental fatigue. As Kaplan suggests, “All too often the modern human must exert effort to do the important while resisting distraction from the interesting” (Kaplan, 1995, p. 170).

This is a wildly modern conundrum, as it is a relatively recent problem (recent as in the past few hundred years) to have to divert our attention to anything other than staying alive. Thus, directed attention fatigue can result in severe consequences within someone’s life or work or both and the understanding of the need for restoration is ever important. Kaplan (1995) suggests four key components to a restorative environment is that it must be far away, fascinating, extensive, and adequate compatibility between the environment and one’s purpose (p. 173). Most notably, the research suggests, “Experience in natural environments can not only help mitigate stress; it can also prevent it through aiding in the recovery of this essential resource” (Kaplan, 1995, p. 180).

While we do our best to avoid stress, it is inevitable. Nature is an incredible resource available to aid in stress relief, as shown by extensive research and, in my case, personal experience. Running has become a form of therapy for me as it gives me the opportunity to reframe problems by means of exercise and extensive time outdoors. I have found, however, that my PM’s have been more valuable in rural areas due to the ability to disconnect from modern luxuries and distractions. This is not uncommon, as research regarding restoration within nature has shown that “…recuperation was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to the natural settings rather than the various urban environments” (Ulrich et al., 1991, p. 222).

It is interesting that the profound benefits of nature for restorative purposes seem so obvious to me. I rarely question the importance of natural settings as a crucial quality for stress relief because my experience proves it to be beneficial. An important factor to this process, as Kaplan points out, is fascination. The beauty of natural settings is that it offers reprieve from overwhelming stimuli such as car horns, bright city lights, or external conversations. Objects in nature offer a fascination that is more manageable in the background and, unlike harsh light or dramatic noise in urban environments, allows us to focus on other things while engulfed in this environment. Kaplan summarizes this phenomenon as a critical component to a restorative environment:

“Many of the fascinations afforded by the natural setting qualify as “soft” fascinations: clouds, sunsets, snow patterns, the motion of the leaves in the breeze—these readily hold the attention, but in an undramatic fashion” (Kaplan, 1995, p. 174).

Interacting with these natural fascination patterns requires no effort, thus creating an environment for the mind to wander freely and return to a state of positivity. In researching the reactions to natural environments after a form of stress, it was discovered “Findings were consistent with the predictions of the psycho-evolutionary theory that restorative influences of nature involve a shift towards a more positively-toned emotional state” (Ulrich et al., 1991, p. 201). Our society tends to favor the idea of overworking, and with the prevalence of exhausted professionals, spending time in nature is more important than ever to aid in the return to a manageable, positive state of mind.

It stands to reason, then, that this process happening within nature in response to stressful situations can (and should) be applied to various professional settings with high instances of stress and overwhelming directed attention fatigue. Interesting findings have shown, in a healthcare setting for example, that “Instead of providing televisions in these spaces, the research evidence demonstrates that a nature intervention would be significantly more beneficial” (Sullivan & Kaplan, 2015, p. 8). If you think about it as a never-ending cycle, the benefits of nature starting in the healthcare setting could set off a domino effect to the rest of the world in which we live and work. As patients heal faster and with a more positive mindset, healthcare workers are happier, facilities are less stressful environments and healed patients are quicker to return to their industries with a more positive mindset, allowing for the cycle to continue to companions and consumers and so forth. It seems abstract, but the benefits of nature are all encompassing.

There are so many different ways to experience the stress-relieving benefits of nature. For me, running outside has become the most useful form of therapy as it allows me to break away from a hectic lifestyle, focus in on important thoughts, and utilize a distraction-free environment to restore my sanity. I find the best solutions to problems come after those initial few miles—when my body is in sync with the wind, fresh air, and chirping of birds in the distance—and my thoughts have the ability to detach from the day and rearrange.


Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology,15(3), 169-182. doi:10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2

Sullivan, W. C., & Kaplan, R. (2015). Nature! Small steps that can make a big difference. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal,9(2), 6-10. doi:10.1177/1937586715623664

Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology,11(3), 201-230. doi:10.1016/s0272-4944(05)80184-7

Nature in our Vocabulary

Originally submitted as research as part of Grad Program at MSU Mankato, 2019

Shifting Perspectives:
Giving Nature a Platform in Our Vocabulary




My first real experience with Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving known for extreme retail sales) came when I was a sophomore in college. I was working part-time as a sales associate at Macy’s. Until this particular year, I had spent almost all big American holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July) traveling or camping or playing on the lake with family and friends. I was very fortunate to grow up in an environment where travel and experiences were a priority. As I stepped onto the Macy’s floor at four o’clock in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving, I realized a monumental shift in my understanding of our culture. A day where most people had valuable time off of work was being spent inside of large shopping malls and department stores with no other purpose than to engage in frivolous spending. Mundane discounts and one-day-only specials were reason enough to spend an entire day inside surrounded by thousands of other hungry deal chasers. As a naive 19-year old from the Northwoods, I was appalled by the display of hedonism and materialistic obsession. While the self-serving interactions with customers were enough to send me running to another part-time job, I couldn’t help but focus on the kids being exposed to such a toxic display of free time utilization. How could these children, being involuntarily schlepped around from store to store for hours, grow up to be anything more than overindulgent, intolerant citizens?

While it might seem overdramatic that a day of shopping can have such a profound effect on a child’s development, it is highly likely, in my opinion, that experiences of these caliber are detrimental to impressionable minds. It is my belief that consistent experiences in nature as well as everyday nature-themed vernacular can provide society with objective, inquisitive, and future-focused citizens.

In 2015, major outdoor retailer REI began their #OptOutside campaign, in which they promised to close all of their stores on the biggest shopping day of the year (Black Friday) encouraging consumers and employees alike to spend the day outside instead of inside, shopping (Nudd, 2017). The campaign, which spurred a flurry of social media postings featuring people pledging to “opt outside,” essentially encouraged people to stop and reevaluate what their time is worth and where it is best spent. REI sparked an interest (or re-interest) in nature with a simple shift in language, snowballing into a movement of prioritizing time spent outside that is still prominent today. According to Ben Steele, Chief Creative Officer of REI, the campaign spoke even more to a change in overall consumer behavior, and as the momentum grew, he witnessed people proclaiming that they were inspired to “...protect public lands, because they’re a place [they] care about” (Nudd, 2017). Because of being exposed to this nature-themed content, consumers rekindled their love for nature and in turn became advocates for preserving natural areas.

This example of a shift in language and a nature-inspired call to action is an incredibly compelling testament to the power of content in our society. A research study by Kesebir & Kesebir (2017) showed evidence of a drastic drop in nature activities in conjunction with the growing omittance of nature-themed subject matter in popular culture. Their research suggests that the “disappearance of nature vocabulary from cultural conversation reflects an actual distancing from nature” (p.260). With this shift in behavior and perspective, they found that these findings suggested “...unrealized gains to human health and well-being, as well as lost opportunities to nurture pro-environmental attitudes and stewardship behaviors” (p.260).

Moreover, their research suggests disconnection from nature is a growing result of urbanization factors and technological advances, particularly within indoors and virtual recreation options (Pergams & Zaradic, 2008). This research also speaks eloquently to the premise that, if creators do not interact with nature regularly, it is unlikely their work will reflect any sort of nature theme. If children are raised without exposure to nature-themed content, who will take on the responsibility of advocating for protection and advancement of natural parks and vulnerable ecosystems in future generations?

In researching a prominent shift away from nature-based recreation, Pergams & Zaradic (2008) argue that it has been found that “environmentally responsible behavior results from direct contact with the environment and that people must be exposed to natural areas as children if they are to care about them as adults” (p. 2295).  The absence of nature-based language and nature-based activities almost ensures that future generations are unlikely to seek out natural environments, affecting everything from their physical health to mental health and more.

The deterioration of biodiversity understanding and advocacy is best represented by the term ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ (Pauly, 1995). Pauly describes this phenomenon as a sort-of reset on part by each generation who, when presented with data from the previous generation, does not take into account the starting baseline of the data, thus skewing the reference points resulting in inaccurate targets for economic development. As generations continue to precede the next, proper referencing of the effects of nature on humans is the only way to continue the lineage of making nature a prioritized value. Without proper research collection and understanding of these shifting baselines, future generations are threatened by misinformation resulting in inaccurate data samples. In his article, Pauly (1995) establishes a call for the development of frameworks for including prior research in reference to global fisheries, or as he recounts, “Frameworks that maximise the use of fisheries history would help us understand and to overcome - in part at least - the shifting baseline syndrome, and hence to evaluate the true social and ecological cost of fisheries” (p. 430). This example represents a larger framework that can be implemented across various natural resource research, inevitably pushing the continuum of activism throughout future generations.

While REI’s #OptOutside campaign didn’t necessarily change the world overnight, the shift in perspective and promoted language had a significant trickle-down effect on consumers in terms of returning to prioritizing time in nature based on the millions of media being posted from the outdoors. This year, REI has committed to partnering with the University of Washington for new “Nature for Health” initiative. According to Justin Housman of Adventure Journal, the goal of the initiative is “ to build a mountain of data surrounding the health benefits of living a life outside, while also digging deeper into the demographics of the outside community to figure out how to increase access to green spaces and public lands to people who don’t traditionally make a lot of use of those spaces” (Housman, 2018). With research like this coming from a popular outdoor retailer, consumer loyalty is able go hand-in-hand with nature-based activism and time spent outdoors. Instead of being lured by marketing tactics to spend holidays inside or online shopping, we as consumers have the opportunity to embrace nature-themed content while simultaneously becoming advocates for environmental progress and sustainability.

“Opting Outside” is continuously popular all over the world including here at The Leadership Center, where we fully embrace the ideology that outside is where your big AHA moments are waiting. Let’s go.


Housman, J. (2018, October 23). REI Gives $1 Million to Study Benefits of Nature, Boost #OutsideForAll. Retrieved from

Kesebir, S., & Kesebir, P. (2017). A Growing Disconnection From Nature Is Evident in Cultural Products. Perspectives on Psychological Science,12(2), 258-269. doi:10.1177/1745691616662473

Nudd. (2017, November 20). Inside Year Three of #OptOutside With REI's Chief Creative Officer. Retrieved from

Pauly, D. (1995). Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends in Ecology & Evolution,10(10), 430. doi:10.1016/s0169-5347(00)89171-5

Pergams, O. R., & Zaradic, P. A. (2008). Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,105(7), 2295-2300. doi:10.1073/pnas.0709893105