Updated: Nov 26, 2020
We have all felt the peaceful effects of nature. The fresh air, being surrounded by trees, the sun on our face or witnessing the sunset whilst listening to the sea waves. We know that spending time in nature slows us down and makes us feel great. But does it measurably affect our health and well-being?
In the last few hundred years, there has been an extraordinary disengagement of humans from the natural world. Never have humans spent so little time in physical contact with animals and plants and the consequences are unknown (1).
Being in a high-stress environment (for example, on a highly-trafficked street) will cause the brain to signal production of cortisol by the adrenal glands. High cortisol interferes with learning and memory, weakens immune function and bone density, and increases weight gain, blood pressure and heart disease (2). It also impacts mental health in children by disrupting brain development, triggering emotional problems, depressive disorders, and negatively affects attention and inhibitory control (2).
Benefits of nature on our health and well-being
Evidence shows that exposure to natural places can lead to positive mental health outcomes, even with just a view of nature from a window, being within natural places, or exercising in these environments (3, 4). Below are a few points regarding this:
1. Reduces stress
In Japan, studies have shown that walking and spending time in forests, known as Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, is a popular form of preventive healthcare in Japan. Studies are now showing the health benefits of spending time in forests. Researchers discovered that going for a 40-minute walk in a cedar forest lowers the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, as well as blood pressure and supports the immune system more than a similar 40-minute walk indoors in a lab (15).
One researcher showed that trees and plants release compounds known as phytoncides that when inhaled give us therapeutic benefits. Phytoncides also change the blood composition, which may impact our protection against cancer, boosts our immune system and lowers our blood pressure (16).
2. Improves mental health
A 2015 study found that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression. Below are conclusion researchers made after examining the brain activity of two groups (one walked for 90 minutes in a wooded, natural area and the other walked for 90 minutes in a high-traffic urban setting (13))
Memory and attention spans benefited from time in nature, with researchers pointing to a 20% improvement after spending an hour interacting with nature—an improvement that was consistent across different seasons and temperatures (14). On the other hand, those that walked in a high-traffic urban setting did not benefit nearly as much.
3. Reduces Obesity in Adults and Children
A study in Denmark concluded that people living within 330 yards of green spaces were less likely to be obese and more likely to engage in rigorous exercise (17). In addition, another study discussed their findings by suggesting that living far from usable green areas or waterfront in urban areas increases the risk of overweight (6). Childhood obesity is one of the 21st century's most serious global health challenges. Research suggests that better access to greenspace such as parks may encourage physical activity and reduce the risk of obesity amongst children (10).
4. Improves heart health and lowers diabetes
Several studies show significant reductions in diastolic blood pressure, salivary cortisol and heart rates just by being within and around nature. In addition, they also showed significant decreases in incidents of type 2 diabetes and strokes (18). This was true, especially regarding green exercise (exercising in nature) as it has greater positive effects than exercise alone. This was prevalent regarding blood pressure, which is an important measure of cardiovascular health (19).
5. Lowers asthma hospitalisations
Adding more trees and greenspace has the additional benefit of improving air quality. Research demonstrated how, as air pollution is reduced, children have improved lung function and fewer hospitalisations for respiratory issues and asthma (20). Similar effects are also seen in adults (21).
6. Spark inspiration
People have noted that walking seems to have a special relation to creativity. Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple solution to the goal of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1889) wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”.
A study done by Stanford University found that when people spend time in nature, they experience a natural shift in how they view time. When you spend time in nature, you tend to feel a sense of ‘awe’ and as though time is expanding. Instead of feeling pressured by time, or a lack of time, people tend to actually enjoy time when they are in nature. This can actually help find that inspiration you are looking for in your creative activities as you get in this “time abundance” mind-set (22).
Did you know? Some of the greatest visionaries of our time - Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and even Barack Obama - were fans of walking meetings.
How long should we stay outdoors?
A recent 2019 study found that 120 minutes every week was the optimum time to spend outside in nature to increase aspects of our health. Interestingly, this time could be spent all in one session or over several shorter visits (11).
Another study identified that a daily dose of 30 minutes in the outdoors can reduce the prevalence of the aforementioned illnesses by up to 9%, with many other studies concluding similar findings (12).
How can you incorporate more outdoor time in your day or week?
Download a podcast and go for a walk after work or on the weekends.
Conduct walking meetings.
Instead of running on a treadmill, download a running route or join a running club.
Park your car a few minutes away from your destination, or get off at an earlier bus stop to walk for a little bit longer.
Pick up an outdoor hobby e.g. gardening, golfing or hiking.
If you like photography, get creative with nature photography.
Cycle to work.
Take your social gatherings outside e.g. picnics, explore new parks, forests, hiking trails on the weekend with family and/or friends.
Modern life is becoming more and more stressful with each decade, which is reflected in the increasing rates of stress-related illnesses such as fatigue, gut problems, headaches, depression and anxiety. As the evidence above clearly demonstrates, there are immediate and long-term favourable emotional and physiological changes proceeding from contact with nature through gardens, natural landscapes, and the wilderness. Contact with the natural world has the ability to affect human health and well-being in endless positive ways!
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