Here in the Pacific Northwest, people enjoy almost-effortless access to the natural outdoor world. We are surrounded by water, mountains and forests that invite us to destress the body, unwind the mind and recharge the emotional batteries.

But precisely how and why do outdoor forays benefit human health? Outdoor outfitter REI is trying to find out. And the answer might involve smartphones.

REI Co-op has donated a $150,000 gift toward a long-term national study exploring the physical, mental and emotional benefits of spending time outdoors. The study will be conducted by researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We are at a crossroads. We know through current research that the average American spends 95% of their time inside. At the co-op, we believe the nation’s growing disconnect from nature will only exacerbate rising rates of chronic health problems,” said Marc Berejka, president of the REI Foundation. “By supporting long-term research at Harvard, we aim to shine a light on the symbiotic relationship between health and nature. Nature is good for us, so we must be good to nature, and time outside should be part of every doctor’s toolkit.”

In the first phase of the study, researchers will hold a series of focus groups to understand traits and attitudes that influence individuals’ nature-seeking behaviors. Volunteers in the greater Boston, Atlanta, Phoenix and San Francisco areas are invited to opt in to the first phase of this study. On a first-come, first-served basis, study participants will be selected from the pool of volunteers for regional, 15-person focus groups.

The outputs of these focus groups will be used to create surveys for subsequent phases of the research. In those phases, a broader group of study participants will provide data on how individuals differ in their patterns of nature engagement.

Using a smartphone app, those study participants will contribute data as they reflect on physical, cognitive and emotional changes after spending time inside and outside over the course of several months, with the goal of understanding how various measures of health are conditioned upon exposure to nature.

“We believe this research approach will provide evidence and support for deeper consideration of nature-based medical alternatives that complement traditional clinical health care and emphasize the need to pay closer attention to potential costs of our culture’s increasingly indoor lifestyle,” said Dr. Jose Guillermo (Memo) Cedeño, research associate in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School.