As a Norwegian, I’ve Always Taken the Benefits of Fresh Air for Granted. But There’s Science To Back Up Our Country’s Love of ‘Friluftsliv’
Friluftsliv (pronounced “free-loofts-liv”) is about stepping out under open skies and breathing fresh air. “Norwegians regard friluftsliv as activities in nature, such as walking, bicycling, berry and mushroom harvesting, fishing, hunting, sleeping in a tent or hammock, sailing, climbing, skating, swimming, and cross-country skiing,” says Bente Lier, general secretary at Norsk Friluftsliv, Norway’s outdoors association. “Relaxing, observing the quiet, enjoying the smell of coffee brewing on a bonfire, is all friluftsliv,” says Lier.
The weather is no reason to miss out on that free air life—if anything, a good bluster can be downright cozy in good waterproofs. Not that it needs to be extreme: A nice park walk or gardening could be friluftsliv too, and even just opening the windows and letting in some fresh air will go a long way to perk you up.
But when my American partner asked me what I thought was so different about the air outside, I was stumped. Fresh air; it’s simply good! Right?!
I spent the next few days thinking about it, getting no closer to explaining something that felt as obvious to me as gravity. I asked some other Norwegians why fresh air is good, and they didn’t understand the question. My father, who goes cross-country skiing at the edge of town most days in retirement, tried his best: “You can’t get fresh air in the city. Too much road dust. Nature is where it’s at.” He paused, realizing his definition might be too strict. “I need to think about this.”
I asked some other Norwegians why fresh air is good, and they didn't understand the question.
He’s not the only one who’s struggling. An otherwise thorough 138-page report on friluftsliv by the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment lists fresh air alongside sunlight and relaxation as things we simply know to be good. The closest this government report gets to explaining is when it quotes a Norwegian novel where a doctor prescribes fresh air to his patients, directing them to “the great pharmacy”: the forest outside Oslo.
Seeking a more scientific explanation, I reached out to the American Lung Association, which put me in touch with Brian Christman, MD, a pulmonologist and professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University. He assured me that fresh air is definitely a thing: “Homes used to be drafty, so people spent a lot of time trying to insulate. But eventually we began to have problems because of indoor air pollution,” says Dr. Christman. Air can deteriorate due to things like carbon monoxide leaks, cars idling by the building’s air intake, or because of harmful radon emanating from the ground. Furniture off-gassing and chemical cleaning supplies can also fill the air with fumes. “Just airing out the home would prevent those things from staying around,” he says.
And what about the air in the woods? “The trees and plants will have scavenged most of the pollutants. A lot will be down to dilution, but the air there is just a bit more pure,” says Dr. Christman. He adds that no, it’s unlikely that the air in the woods has some extra quality that’s missing from other air—it’s just less dirty.
The Norwegian in me has mixed feelings about this. Surely the air in the mountains isn’t special only because it doesn't irritate my airways?
Maybe it’s not just the air itself. Some research has found that even just seeing greenery can be beneficial to our health. In her recent study, Jun Wu, PhD, professor of environmental and occupational health at University of California, Irvine, found that being close to green spaces reduces the risk of postpartum depression. “One of the most important factors was the trees on their street,” says Dr. Wu. “We looked at people’s proximity to parks, but that variable was less important than having a straight view to a green space.”
Dr. Wu’s previous study found even starker results: Simply looking at nature on video led to improved mental health for pregnant women: “Just by watching the video, [without] other beneficial effects such as exercise or reduced pollution, you still have a beneficial effect.” There’s something about the view of the trees themselves.
Asked if my father is right and you can’t get properly fresh air in the city, Dr. Wu says we’re primarily at risk of health problems when there’s several things going on at once: “So if you have multiple stressors such as limited green space, heavy air pollution, and extreme heat exposure, that’s when the disadvantages come.”
Still, friluftsliv is about more than either fresh air or greenery. A search for the origin of the term brought me to the influential Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, who coined “friluftsliv” in his 1859 poem “On the heights”: “In the desolate cottage / My abundant catch I gather / There's a hearth and a table / Friluftsliv for my thoughts.” Here, Ibsen is having a very nice time by himself in the wilderness, but the “fresh air life” he talks about is mental: His thoughts are free to run.
So many of my childhood memories are about moseying around in the woods and drinking from streams, running in the sandy shallows of a mountain lake, and eating as many berries as I picked for my bucket. My experience isn’t particularly special among Norwegians. One study shows that unlike sports, friluftsliv is equally enjoyed across social classes and genders. This is in part due to allemannsretten, the Norwegian right to roam: “You can walk, ride your bike, or sleep in a tent almost everywhere, no matter who owns the land,” says Bente Lier. This means you don’t have to go very far: “The barriers to go into nature are few.”
There are seemingly endless health benefits to being in nature—it’s pretty much a guaranteed mood boost. But there’s a lot going on when we head for the hills: It typically means hearing and smelling the forest, seeing wildlife, moving our bodies, and taking a break from stressful things. Nature doesn’t want anything from us; it’s a place where we can feel free. I started to wonder if the lore of fresh air is actually shorthand for all these other things.
“Friluftsliv has a deeper meaning,” says Lier. “It means being a part of the cultural ‘we,’ which binds us together as humans who’re a part of nature, and as humans [who share] a common culture.” Put like this, it’s almost like nature is part of us. Another term for this is biophilia: the belief that we have an instinct and a drive to connect with nature, due to the fact that we evolved in the wild and needed nature to survive. I bet Henrik Ibsen would have loved that.
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