Nature journaling: A gym workout for your brain


I started thinking about my weekly nature journaling routine as going to the gym. It was just exercise time for my mind instead of my muscles. This comparison was just a lark at first, but on thinking it through I found I rather liked the analogy. I noticed that nature is truly supporting me in this uncertain and isolating time of COVID-19. I, like many others, are turning to nature for relaxation, strength, and space to breathe. Universities like Stanford are producing scientific studies that show the mental benefits for people to spend time in natural environments. We need as many of those mood boosting breaks as we can get right now. Nature journaling is a wonderful way to focus time and increase the brain’s payoff from the positive influences of the outdoors. Here is how you can use the routines and techniques you know from the gym to spend time outdoors for mental betterment with focus and intent.


Let’s start by setting up the analogy and look at “what is a nature journal?” and “what is a gym?” You have a notebook with notes and sketches and you have a room with lots of heavy, yet focused, equipment. I see them both as the time, space, and tools to work your brain and your body in order to feel better, stronger and ready for any adventure.



Make sacred space for the body and sacred space for the brain

Just signing up for a gym membership shows that you want to improve your performance. It is a commitment that you will work for your physical improvement goals. A gym still charges that monthly fee so you better show up and use it. And like a membership to a new gym a cool new journal or set of watercolor pencils can act as a catalyst to get you out the door. Some people even see the gym itself as an accountability partner. By walking into that towel- and weight-filled room you immediately feel a sense of place. You have separated yourself from your daily chores, meetings, or commute to serve your body. Sure, some days it is much harder to get there than others, but once you are there, in the gym, doing the actual workout, it becomes easier. And so too the walk outdoors with pencil and notebook in hand serves as a sacred act to mark the time away from “regular” life. Once you are outside listening and looking, those rocks, leaves and filled pages become your accountability partners. Close the notebook to walk back inside and life picks up where you left it off.


See how this analogy is working out? Not bad.


Start with a warm up

Stretch, breathe, and listen to your body then settle into a gentle rhythm. Works just as well with nature journaling as it does in the weight room. You quiet your mind and find intention in your body. In nature you start by just observing or making a few notes on what is jumping to your attention. This is just as important as prepping your muscles for the coming exercises.



Dive into strength training with reps

In his practice, John Muir Laws, refers to logging “pencil miles” when you want to improve your drawing skills for journaling. I think of this practice as doing reps on a machine or with kettlebells. This is a great way to remember that practice and repetition is how we get better and stronger. Use your “pencil miles” to sketch small and numerous objects in your field of view. These reps are not about “pretty” or “correct” they are about using your eyes and hands in harmony. One day you may use low weights with lots of reps and others you feel it’s time to raise the pounds and lower the repetitions. All of it helps. Change your tools and equipment for variety. One day focus skyward and another day focus downward.



Take a water break

Don’t forget to drink water. No matter if you are working your body or your brain you still need to hydrate.


I think this little analogy is coming together pretty well. Do you?


Build endurance

Endurance is what you are here for. You may have a variety of goals for either brain or body and these goals will change over time. Endurance really boils down to being able to keep going when you used to stop. Your heart, lungs, brain and muscles all love endurance. In the gym it might look like going father on the elliptical. In journaling, endurance might look like filling four pages as opposed to one. You may find yourself even filling more notebooks! Endurance will keep you going in those adventures both planned and stumbled upon. Keep working, rest when you need to, and push yourself a little every time.



Make time for a cool down

Take a few minutes to cool down. You earned your rest and you should breathe a little to enjoy it. Both at the gym and in nature a mini savasana (borrowed from yoga) can impress the benefits of your hard work into your brain and body. You can lay down in “corpse pose” or take a few minutes to just appreciate that you showed up today.



Really, it is like going to the gym for your brain.


I had fun coming up with this analogy. Let me know your thoughts or questions. I am surprised at how much going to the gym is like nature journaling; however, unlike the gym, going outdoors is free and has not been shut down by a pandemic.


You can join Finches Family Nature Journaling Facebook group by going to the Naturalist Studio FB page and clicking on the “Visit Group” button. Come be a part of our nature journaling virtual and real adventures and connect with like minded families.


If you are looking for other fun ways to be outdoors with your family check out Finches’ FREE download “12 Easy Ideas to Get Your Busy Family into Nature Now”.

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