Spring is upon us. The days are getting longer and the first shoots and buds appear with flowers and blossoms soon to follow. Spring marks a time of rebirth and it’s a good opportunity to get outside and enjoy the natural beauty around us. Whether we’re just walking around the block or going further afield on a hike, there are a number of health benefits to being outside with nature.
For most of us, if we’re outside, it likely means we’re getting some physical activity as opposed to sitting inside our homes or at work. Sure we may be sitting down and enjoying the scenery (and there may be benefit to doing just that) but being outside usually results in walking about or some other type of activity as well.
In the research field, things like parks, fields and forests are grouped together into what is termed greenspace. This can be measured in a number of ways such as walking through neighbourhoods and recording the presence of parks, trees, etc., using satellite images and even using Google street view. From this work, we know that living close to parks has been associated with increased physical activity across a range of countries. Some studies, but not all, have also found access to greenspace to be associated with less obesity and diseases like heart disease and diabetes. More recently, a study of over a million people using satellite imaging found that the risk of death was lower in communities with greater greenspace. Even healthier birth outcomes have been associated with living closer to greenspace areas.
There’s also something about being with nature that makes us feel better as well. I often find myself going for walks around my nearest park more often than I do along our main retail thoroughfare. Without really knowing why, I find it more enjoyable. I even find I get inspired for my writing (like this blog). Walking through nature is associated with less negative thoughts. Indeed, being around nature and greenspace results in a lower occurrence of stress, depression and anxiety.
So why is it that being around nature and greenspace is so beneficial? In terms of our mental well-being, it may be due in part to the beneficial effects of physical activity on our brain, as well as the likely social interaction that may occur. In terms of our physical health, being around greenspace may also reduce our exposure to air pollution, which is associated with greater heart disease.
But those reasons don’t explain why looking at pictures of trees and plants can reduce stress, as measured through reduced feelings of anger as well as lower blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension. Further studies have found that immersion to forests through virtual reality reduces cortisol levels (higher levels of cortisol are associated with more stress). It’s likely that more than one path exists to explain the benefits of nature.
Connecting with nature is also good for patients recovering in the hospital. While ancient hospitals and monasteries commonly had gardens, the hospitals we know now are comparatively devoid of them. But back in 1984 researchers assigned a small group of patients to a room with a view of trees and a garden, while others were assigned to a room with a window facing a brick wall. Those patients with the view of nature had faster recovery and shorter hospital stays. These findings can make a compelling case that hospital gardens may actually have a role in reducing hospital costs, and in the United Kingdom, at least, hospital gardens are making a comeback.
It’s only been in the last few centuries that we’ve begun to spend increasing amounts of time inside. Our ancestors spent much more time outside than we do now (and were also more active) and it may be that we have some natural evolutionary link to nature that we need to accommodate. So as the weather gets better, it will be good for all of us to spend some time walking, jogging, cycling, or whatever you want to do outside and smell the roses, or the daffodils or the tulips…