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Why You Should Start Your Busy Morning with a Phone-Free Walk

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Photo: Dmitrii_Miki / Shutterstock

What's the first thing you do when you wake up? And before you say that you brush your teeth, drink your coffee, or run, back up. We mean the very first thing—like before-you-even-set-a-foot-on-the-ground first thing.

If you're like most people, you look at your phone. Sixty-two percent of people do it within 15 minutes of waking up; 43 percent within just five minutes; 18 percent, immediately, according to the results of the Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer survey last year. (Related: Phone-Life Balance Is a Thing, and You Probably Don't Have It

I'm (regrettably) one of those people in the latter 18 percent zone. I open my eyes, I check my email. I've been that way for years, thinking that the habit helped me be responsive—more prepared to tackle the day ahead.

Then it backfired. Waking up to my phone left me drained. I felt anxious the minute I woke up, nervously anticipating what lay in my inbox. (Not to mention once you've opened the door to your work day, it's hard to close it.) I started to realize that my mornings weren't really mine at all—they were, rather, abrupt transitions from sleep directly to work. I felt like I had zero downtime. And it was my own fault. 

My feelings are spot on, experts say. When you switch from the peaceful state of sleeping to stressful work emails, texts, disheartening news stories, calendar updates, stimulating social media feeds (that research finds can invoke feelings of stress and anxiety), you startle your brain, sending it into panic mode and triggering the release of stress hormones, says Kathleen Hall, Ph.D., founder and CEO of The Stress Institute in Atlanta. 

"When you get hooked on a story, email, or text, your body sets off a kaleidoscope of chemicals putting your body on alert," she says. "Your adrenaline and cortisol levels can begin pulsing before you even get out of bed." (Related: 20 Simple Stress Relief Techniques

In other words? "Your entire day has been seeded or rooted in stress chemicals."

So a few weeks ago, on one of those finally-spring days, instead of rolling over to my iPhone, I tried something new. I set the alarm an hour earlier, and my husband and I got up—without our phones—and took a short walk around our neighborhood.

When I opened my laptop and looked at my phone after returning, I felt refreshed, calmer, ready.

If this doesn't seem entirely novel or noteworthy to you, you're right: For years, research has demonstrated the restorative benefits of nature—specifically movement in nature. (Related: Science-Backed Ways That Getting In Touch with Nature Boosts Your Health) Not to mention all the benefits of going tech-free, even for a short time: better sleep, improved mood, less tech neck!

"Time in nature helps us recalibrate our natural energy patterns. We become more calm and grounded when we harmonize with the sounds and sensations of the great outdoors," confirms Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., executive director of the American Institute of Stress. Exercise (even a gentle walk) enhances those benefits, boosting circulation and metabolism, loosening tight muscles, releasing tension, and giving respite to tired eyes that are too often stuck on screens, she notes.

A phone-free morning in nature is something that more and more experts are suggesting could be a way to combat work stress—particularly before the day formally begins—and particularly for those of us (read: most of us) who are plugged in from the moment we wake up until the minute we fall asleep with our phones cozied up beside us.

This tech-free time in Mother Nature is even more essential when you considering that Americans spend more than 90 percent of each week indoors, according to a survey conducted by the EPA.

And while a sunset stroll certainly has its perks, this time outdoors first thing in the morning is key to starting our day on the right note, experts say. "It's critical to plug our energy and attention into a positive source first thing in the morning, while our brains are most flexible and adaptable to take in new information," says Hanna.

"Natural settings help us psychologically distance ourselves from the demands of work and family life," explains Terry Hartig, Ph.D., a professor of environmental psychology at Sweden's Uppsala University. "A morning walk in a natural setting can also allow a person quiet time to prepare for the emails or social media that they know is to come."

Since that one a.m. stroll, my husband and I have made morning walks a habit. We've taken one almost every day since—even if it's just for a few minutes. We circle a sunny park near our apartment, walk along a park system trail not far from our street, or on busy mornings, we just loop around the block.

And it's been seriously life-changing. 

Not only has it helped me in pretty much all of the ways the psychologists said it would, but not bringing my phone with me has also helped me realize how dependent on it I truly am. I'm reminded of this every time I feel the urge to take a photo of a blooming tree (why?) or to look down at a screen while standing in line for coffee. But being device-less has kept me in the moment, helping me to take in scenes I may have otherwise missed. Not having my phone to constantly distract me means I've also noticed how many other people are plugged in, zoned out from the moment, and perhaps stressing themselves out without even knowing it.

"I believe there is a powerful pulse in nature that exists at a massive healing level," says Hall. "When we are off balance, whether it is physical or psychological, the powerful force of the rhythm of nature regulates our own energy and brings us back into balance." (Related: 10 Woo-Woo Things You Can Do to Feel One with Nature

Sound appealing? Try it. One day this week, set the alarm a little earlier, leave your phone, head outside, and pay attention to your surroundings—chirping birds, a corner bodega that won't open for a few hours, early morning joggers, the rain on your skin. If the idea of carving time out in the morning seems nice but just not doable (no matter how many obligations you rearrange), you can find ways to reap the same benefits during your commute. Choose to walk all or part of the way to work, finding areas of green wherever you can (detour toward a park or your favorite tree-lined cobblestone street), and make sure that phone is zipped away tightly in your bag or jacket pocket—no cheating. 

Your phone will be there when you get back. Promise.

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