The summer is nearly upon us with longer days, flowers blossoming and birds chirping. It’s a good opportunity to get outside and enjoy the natural beauty around you. Being in nature is good for your health and wellbeing. And with the current pandemic resulting in lockdowns and higher anxiety, getting out with nature can be a welcome change.
For most of us, if we’re outside, it likely means we’re getting some activity or exercise as opposed to sitting inside our homes or at work. Indeed, in an eight country study, people who lived close to a park were more active. And access to greenspace (parks, fields, forests) has been associated with less obesity, a lower chance of early death and even positive thinking.
Take a Bath in Nature
But it appears to be more than activity. In Japan, the act of ‘forest bathing’ has been practiced for decades. And it doesn’t rely on being active, but immersing yourself in the forest. Compared to being in the city, a three-day trip in the forest resulted in increases in anti-cancer cells.
However, not all of us have the time to spend three days in a forest and the good news is, you don’t have to. As little as two hours per week in parks, fields and forests can lead better health and wellbeing. And the benefits appeared to continue up to five hours per week.
Being in nature has a calming effect and can result in a lower occurrence of stress, depression and anxiety. It’s also been associated with improved learning and a push for more outdoor education in schools. These lower stress levels may explain, in part, the healthier birth outcomes in people with more greenspace in their neighbourhood. These neighbourhoods also tend to have greater community cohesion and less crime.
Seeing Nature for Wellbeing
There are a number of possible reasons why being in nature is good of us. Trees are known to give off compounds called phytoncides, which may have health benefits for us too. In addition, cortisol levels (the stress hormone) are reduced with as little as 20 minutes in a city park. Air pollution, which is associated with adverse health outcomes such as heart disease, is lower in areas with more trees and greener environments.
But those reasons don’t explain why looking at pictures of trees and plants can reduce stress, blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension. Further studies have found using virtual reality to view forests also reduces cortisol levels. It’s likely that more than one path exists to explain the benefits of nature.
Take a Hike and Call me in the Morning
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 had a window facing a brick wall.
Those patients with the view of nature had faster recovery and shorter hospital stays. While gardening can reduce isolation and anxiety in hospitalized psychiatric patients. These findings make a compelling case that hospital gardens may actually have a role in reducing health costs. And in the United Kingdom, at least, hospital gardens are making a comeback along with doctors writing out nature prescriptions for their patients.
It’s only been in the last few centuries that we’ve begun to spend increasing amounts of time inside. And much of this time inside is spent in the effort of being attentive or thinking in work or other similar situations. When we do go outside, we’re met with the business of the urban environment. However, our brains are more evolved to the peacefulness of nature. So as the weather gets better, spend some time walking, jogging, cycling, or whatever you want to do outside and smell the roses.
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This post was originally published on March 28, 2018 and updated on June 10, 2020.