Feeling stressed? Worried or uncertain about what the future holds? Try spending more time outdoors.
An increasing number of research studies on the link between nature and health show that time spent in natural environments is restorative toward our health and well-being. Living in areas near green and blue spaces has been associated with less mental distress, more vitality, and greater life satisfaction. One study of surgical patients demonstrated the therapeutic effect of nature views for both reducing post-op recovery times and the need for pain medication. From a physiological perspective, exposure to nature can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, as well as increase feelings of relaxation. Research into the Japanese practice of "forest bathing," or shinrin-yoku, has shown that mindful immersion in the sights, scents, and sounds of forests can increase Natural Killer (NK) cell activity and enhance immune functioning. According to a study from the UK, it only takes two hours of recreational time in nature per week to observe a meaningful difference in health and well-being.
Several theories explain why a connection to nature is so beneficial for our health, and what underlying mechanisms may be involved. The biophilia hypothesis proposes that we are innately drawn to nature because our ancestors evolved in natural settings and depended on the environment for survival. Natural elements may be restorative toward mental health because they engage our involuntary attention, which is less mentally demanding than other forms of attention and focus. By restoring our adaptive resources and providing us with an opportunity to get away, nature promotes recovery from physiological and psychological stress. Additionally, green spaces and urban tree canopy lead to improved air quality, which in turn can decrease the incidence of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Parks, open spaces, and gardens are also associated with an increase in physical activity, social cohesion, and a sense of community. Finally, nature elicits a sense of awe and wonder, purpose and meaning in life, and a spiritual connection to the world around us.
By taking a holistic view of our health within the context of our environment, we can see how interconnected we are with our surroundings, our communities, and our ecosystems and planet as a whole. We rely on our environment for clean air, land, and water, and we are responsible for its stewardship and care. As we strengthen our connection to nature, we have the opportunity to engage in the reciprocal healing of our communities and our planet. Nature's resilience serves as a model for living our best lives – it shows us how to adapt and change, regenerate and restore ourselves, and endure and thrive through the ebbs and flows of life.
Bratman, G.N., Anderson, C.B., Berman, M.G., et al., 2019. Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science Advances, 5(7), p.eaax0903.
Hansen, M.M., Jones, R. and Tocchini, K., 2017. Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) and nature therapy: A state-of-the-art review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(8):851.
Hartig, T., Mitchell, R., De Vries, S. and Frumkin, H., 2014. Nature and health. Annual Review of Public Health, 35:207-28.
White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., et al., 2019. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Scientific Reports, 9(1):1-11.
Photo by: szefei/Shutterstock.com