The newest principles of wellness science tells us the more time connecting with nature leads to a greater wellbeing mentally and physically.
By Christine Yu
“Take a hike.”
It’s often what you say when you need to blow off some steam or change your perspective. It turns out spending time outside can do more than just fill your lungs with fresh air. More and more research shows that spending time in nature is good for your physical and mental health.
The healing power of the forest is something the Japanese have known about since the 1980s where they practice shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. Now, the idea of nature therapy is starting to take off in the United States and Canada. Indeed, doctors and other healthcare providers are encouraging patients to spend time in parks and now parks prescription programs, like the National ParkRX Initiative, are spreading nationwide.
But you don’t need a prescription to take advantage of the nature cure. Take Rita, for example. When stress builds at work, the 47-year-old nonprofit executive from Rochester, Michigan knows she needs to get outside. So, she meanders in her local park, stopping on bridges overlooking the creek, visiting her favorite trees, and listening to birds.
Whether it’s 10 minutes or an hour, being in nature helps Rita feel more grounded and connected to the world around her, which helps her manage her anxiety symptoms. “When I’m outside, just walking around, I feel better,” she says.
When people have a stronger bond with the natural environment, they tend to report more positive emotions and a greater sense of purpose and meaning of life
Similarly, Eric, 37, makes the outdoors an important part of his life. While he grew up as a boy scout, he started to spend less time outside as an adult. “I would go to work and go home. I was miserable,” he recalls.
But several years ago, he started to explore the trails around his home in NY State on weekends. He says his senses woke up. “Everything felt better on the weekends I was outside compared to weekends when I wasn’t,” he says. “I feel centered when I get back. My brain works in a more creative way.”
In short, nature can be healing. “We’re deeply connected to our environment and it greatly affects our health,” says J. Phoenix Smith, an ecotherapist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It’s something that Native American and indigenous communities have been trying to teach us for ages.”
A dose of fresh air
A walk along the beach or a hike in the forest is a full body experience. Not only do you move through the natural environment, your eyes take in varied textures and patterns of spider webs and tree bark, your ears tune into waves crashing or birds chirping, and you smell the earthy dirt. Your body subtly shifts too. Your heart rate slows, your breath deepens, and your shoulders relax.
Smith and other experts argue that nature time is particularly necessary these days. Not only are more people living in urban environments than ever before, we also spend more time on devices. According to the Nielson Company audience report, adults in the United States spent more than 11 hours in front of screens during the first quarter of 2017.
“We’re so urban, so plugged in,” says Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix. “As we’ve moved indoors as a species and have radically changed our habitat, we’re noticing an uptick in a lot of chronic conditions like anxiety, depression, social isolation, obesity, diabetes.”
Yet, nature can help buffer us against these effects.
Just living near parks, forests or water can be good for you. Researchers from Harvard found a 12 percent drop in mortality among women living closer to green space compared to those living farther away. And a 2015 Canadian study showed that Toronto residents living on streets with more trees experienced better health outcomes. For example, having 10 more trees on a city block improved health perception equivalent to a $10,000 increase in annual household income and to being seven years younger.
Natural stress reducer
While physical activity can reduce stress and improve overall health, there’s something about being outside that amplifies these benefits.
“When you’re outside in a pretty place, you’re drawn out of your thinking brain and more into the sensory brain. Nature lets other parts of our brain come online and it brings a sense of restoration and relaxation,” says Williams. “It seems to be that we reduce our stress and that in turn has tremendous improvement for general wellbeing and cognition.”
Even short-term visits to natural areas can reduce stress. Researchers in Japan studied 420 people at 35 different forests in Japan. They found that 15 minutes in the natural environment resulted in lower cortisol levels (the body’s stress hormone), pulse rate, blood pressure, and sympathetic nervous system activity (the body’s fight-or-flight system). At the same time, the body’s rest and digest system or the parasympathetic nervous system increased activity by 55 percent, indicating a more relaxed state.
Similar results have been found in the United States. Stanford University researchers randomly assigned participants to walk in a grassy and wooded area or along a busy street. After the nature walk, people experienced less anxiety and rumination (or negative overthinking, which has been correlated with depression), and improved working memory. They also felt happier compared to urban walkers.
That’s the case for Karen. “I truly feel both my physical and mental health are nurtured by nature,” says the 54-year-old employee benefits consultant and writer from Claremont, Ontario. “As soon as I step foot on the trail, I breathe and slow down. My brain relaxes and I get tons of ideas for my clients or my writing,” she says. Karen sleeps better too.
“We live in a culture that tells us that we need to be productive and do more,” says Williams. “The ironic thing is that if we spent more time outside, we’d reduce our stress and we’d actually be more productive in the long run.”
Heather loves the outdoors for more than just the physical benefits; she uses nature as a mental reboot too.
“Sometimes I get overwhelmed, whether it’s because the kitchen’s a mess or I have work to do. If I can get out for 30 minutes, it helps me reprioritize. It’s a good way to reset my brain,” says the 35-year-old Denver resident. “Plus, it puts me in a really good mood.”
Heather has a high level of nature relatedness. That’s what Lisa Nisbet, professor of psychology at Trent University, calls an individual’s level of connection to the natural world and is part of what motivates people to spend time outside. Her research has found that a strong sense of nature relatedness is a significant predictor of happiness.
“When people have a stronger bond with the natural environment, they tend to report more positive emotions and a greater sense of purpose and meaning of life,” says Nisbet. “It’s another way we can improve our happiness, but we don’t always take advantage of it.”
More recently, ecotherapy has begun to gain popularity. “Ecotherapy isn’t based on a medical model. It came from the psychotherapy community and is a broad term that incorporates different modalities that promote healing,” explains Smith, such as wilderness, animal-assisted and horticulture therapy. But the main premise is spending time in nature in a mindful way.
Ben Page, founder of Shinrin Yoku LA and trainer at the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs, regularly takes people on forest therapy walks as a way to reconnect them to the land by slowing down and awakening the senses.
“Getting people to stand still for 10 minutes in the forest radically alters their perspective,” he says, adding that the forest is filled with impermanence and imperfection, and it is these qualities that give it its beauty. Page explains that when we slow down, we begin to see ourselves as connected to, not separate from, nature and to its beauty of change and imperfection.
“Set against a culture that worships perfection in all things, connecting to the imperfect beauty of nature allows us to lovingly accept ourselves as we are, instead of obsessively trying to perfect ourselves,” he adds.
How much nature do you need?
While any amount of time in nature, even a few minutes, is good for you, more is better. “There are a number of benefits from looking at a view outside your window, playing a bird song on tape or having potted plants, but you seem to get more benefits the more real nature immersion you get,” says Williams.
Yet, there’s still more that scientists want to know about the relationship between nature, health, and wellness, such as which natural elements are most powerful, which populations benefit the most, and how long the effect lasts. “We still have a long way to go before we can convince the medical and insurance establishment that nature should be medicalized,” says Williams.
And while it can support your wellness plan, “it’s not a substitute for proper medical care or medication,” cautions Smith.
The idea of spending time in nature isn’t revolutionary but it can feel like child’s play. Yet, it’s an easy, low-cost (and fun!) way to boost your mood and health.
* * * * *
Simple Ways to Increase Your Nature Dose
Short Spurts Count: Not everyone can go for a day-long hike, but that’s not the only way to reap nature’s healing powers. “Everyday nature seems to benefit us, even if we spend 10 to 20 minutes,” says psychology professor Lisa Nisbet. “People who spend more time in their backyard, visiting a local park or doing things in nature seem to have better moods than those who don’t.”
Take it with you: Before Rita gets into her car, she touches her lavender plants and breaks off a piece to keep in her pocket. Other times, if she finds a leaf or twig during her daily walk, she brings it back to her office. “It’s a simple way to keep me in touch with the rest of the world during the day,” she says.
Look out your window: If you’re stuck in an office all day (or have seasonal allergies), don’t fret. Studies have found that viewing trees through a window may increase job satisfaction and decrease stress. Researchers have also found that viewing images of nature scenes may help people recover from stress or stressful events.
Listen: Download some birdsongs and press play. Researchers have found that sounds of nature may improve how your body recovers from stress. Better still, install a bird feeder outside your window.
Don’t overlook urban nature: Urban areas have their fair share of natural environments, like pocket parks and green roofs. Urban gardens are a great resource too. “It’s a way to decrease isolation and increase social connection. You can also connect with the soil and learn about where your food comes from,” says J. Phoenix Smith, an ecotherapist
Find a Regular Spot: Smith recommends that people find a regular place to visit. “It is a way to build safety for yourself and connection with that one place,” he says.“You build a relationship with that place and notice the changes in the seasons and environment.”
* * * * *
#1) Find a Group: If you’re intimidated by the outdoors, connect with a local outdoor group. Check out your local parks department, REI or outdoor retail stores, Meetups, or organizations like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro. If you’re interested in forest therapy, you can find a certified guide in your area through the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs.
#2) Don’t overthink it: While you may think you need specialized gear and food to spend time outside, you don’t. “You just need to step outside your front door, walk down the street and sit on a bench,” says Denver resident Heather Balogh Rochfort.
#3) Leave your devices at home: In order to connect with nature and reap its benefits, leave your phone at home. “When you don’t have a screen in your face constantly telling you what to do or giving you instant validation, you notice things more, like the colors of the leaves, more than you would normally,” says Eric.
Printed as “The Healing Powers of Nature”, Spring 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
(This and our other articles are provided by some of our curated resources. We encourage readers to support them and continue to look to these sources in times of need and opportunity.)