The Early-Camper Gets the Worm, According to Wilderness Study


October 26, 2014

It’s common knowledge that hanging around the outdoors, whether that be running bases on the baseball field or trekking in the backcountry — is nothing less than beneficial for you. There’s all that fresh air, exercise, a release from the stresses of everyday life — we could go on infinitum.

So now we have a new study that has scientists telling us there are additional pluses to participating in the wilderness-based activities, and these bennies can result in former sleepy heads who can’t seem to get up in the morning finding themselves leaping out of bed with a spring in their step and a song in their hearts.

According to a recent article in Current Biology, it appears that a large, consistent concentration of florescent lights in schools and the workplace, reading lamps at home, stadium floods and other artificial illumination sources, can really screw up your sleep pattern. And that doesn’t even account for the screen glow from computers, tablets and smartphones.

The study — albeit a small one — claims that an overabundance of artificial light at the wrong time can change sleep patterns and make us grumpy and sluggish in the mornings.

But a week in the wild, these scientists assert, synchronizes the body’s clock to become more attuned to the Sun and natural light sources, such as a candle or a campfire. In fact, sleep researchers maintain that by taking away artificial light, former night owls and other party animals who have a rough time hitting the deck in the morning, find themselves up and at ’em bright and early with more energy than ever before.

Kenneth P. Wright Jr., Ph.D., of the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says the brain’s “clock” lets us know when it’s time to hit the rack. However, unlike an alarm clock, this so-called circadian clock can be affected by artificial light sources, keeping you awake later at night and making it more difficult to get up in the morning.

Wright says that after exposure to only natural light, “the internal circadian clock synchronizes to solar time such that the beginning of the internal biological night occurs at sunset and the end of the internal biological night occurs before wake time just after sunrise.”

Wright and his fellow researchers sent eight campers out to Utah’s Zion National Park for a week to test their theory. Each camper was provided with a wristband that measures light exposure and the monitored their sleep period.

After a week outdoors — with nothing to illuminate the experience besides Ol’ Sol and campfire light — Wright said each camper experienced a change in their circadian clock that made it easier for them to rise and shine earlier in the morning.

Wright said the body clock of each participant prompted them to go to bed earlier and get up earlier. Each became a “morning person,” something their Moms had probably prayed would happen when they were growing up and living at home.

The scientists said that because sunlight is so much brighter than artificial light, the campers were exposed to more light in the daytime and less after the sun went down.

OK, granted, you might see holes in this study the size of Crater Lake, but the Boulder bunch does have a point. Logic would point to the fact that if you’re sitting around a campfire after sunset with no other light source, you’re probably going to climb into your sleeping bag earlier than if you were at home.

And that same logic suggests that with all that extra sleep, you’re going to get up earlier. Especially if the morning sun is beaming through the thin fabric of your tent.

But here’s the point: Spending more of your morning daylight hours outside (with proper sunscreen, of course) is good for your constitution, not to mention your health and mental well being. And at night, dimming the lights at home, and maybe staying away from the laptop a couple of hours before retiring can assist in procuring a good night’s sleep and an early wake-up time.

Veteran campers and hikers alike know all of this without the benefit of a study. Here at the National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE), we are firm in our belief that the outdoors is nothing short of a miracle cure for whatever ails you. This is where skills are acquired, abilities are transformed, lifelong friendships are established and adventures are fully experienced.

Our outdoor programs teach wilderness, human and educational skills that are challenging, leaving our course and training participants free to pursue their goals and objectives in the real world.

And apparently, out outdoor adventures can also help to get them up earlier in order to pursue these lofty pursuits.

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