The Subtle, but Profound Health Benefits of Nature
Jae O. Haroldsen
When I am tired, confused, and feel at my wits end, I find I need to step outside to clear my head. Sometimes, I just head out my front door and walk around my neighborhood. Other times, I seek out the healing power of water and purposely head to trails around a lake.
Within ten minutes into my contact with nature, I find myself letting out a huge sigh. My heart rate slows. I feel my neck and shoulders begin to relax. I find myself letting go of my swirling thoughts as I start interacting with nature.
I hear the tap, tap, tap of a woodpecker working on a dead limb over my head. I feel the warmth of the sun followed by a tickling breeze on my skin. I watch a songbird flittering. I hear a squirrel rustling the leaves. I catch a glimpse of a red fox tail disappearing in the brush.
And suddenly whatever I was chewing on is softer, less intense as I connect to a power a million times greater than my own. In the natural light, I see I am part of a majestic world full of color, hope, and connection.
The power of nature seems like a simple antidote to our cares and worries. Can spending time in nature really have such amazing physical effects on the human body?
Nature’s Effects on Feelings of Wellbeing
A large observational study involving over twenty thousand participants was conducted in England. In this study, participants recorded how many minutes they spent in nature each week and answered questions regarding feelings of good health and wellbeing. It was determined the benefits of spending time in nature were maximized when spending more than 120 minutes in the course of a week.
Participants spending less than 120 minutes in a week in natural settings reported no overall changes in health and wellbeing from being in nature. However, being in nature more than 200 minutes in a week showed signs of diminishing returns for feelings of good health and wellness.
This study concluded being in nature was just as important to a person’s overall wellbeing and health as their regular physical activity level, living conditions, and employment satisfaction.
Living Close to Green Space Reduces Stress
Green space is calming on our nerves. To prove this a small study in the UK measured the stress hormone, cortisol, in the saliva of individuals living in deprived communities. They found a significant positive correlation between the percent of green space within a deprived community and the level of measured cortisol. The results showed the greater the amount of green space within a community, the lower the number of stress hormones in its occupants.
Forest Bathing Study Shows Nature Relieves Depression
Japanese researchers studied the effects on blood pressure and mood before and after a full day of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. To forest bathe a person simply stays under the forest canopy soaking up the sights, sounds, odors, and feel of the woods. In this study, the participants were broken into groups of four or five people and slowly walked through the forest with a guide. The guide demonstrated breathing exercises, yoga poses, and hammock techniques and encouraged the participants to talk to each other.
The fatigue and stress of their normal work put the 155 participants at risk for depression. After a day of forest bathing, all participants showed significantly improved blood pressure levels and mental health scores. The study concludes that forest bathing showed a profound benefit for those with a tendency towards depression.
Exposure to Trees and Plants Boost the Human Immune System
Trees and plants give off airborne chemicals called phytoncides that protect the plant from insects and disease. Phytoncides are antibacterial and antifungal. When humans breathe in phytoncides, phytoncides boost immune systems by increasing the number and activity of natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells are responsible for limiting the number and spread of many microbial infections and tumors.
In 2010, Qing Li, a Japanese researcher reported his study on the measured effects of a weekend camping trip compared to a weekend city excursion on stress hormones and NK cells in participants. They found the camping trip to the forest resulted in significantly decreased stress hormone levels in both men and women. Whereas, the city excursion showed no change in stress hormones.
The study found the camping trip also significantly increased the level and activity of NK cells. Blood samples showed the increased NK activity lasted for up to thirty days after the trip. The research concludes the increased NK activity was due to the uptake of phytoncides and the reduced production of stress hormones.
Nature Reduces Directed Attention Fatigue and Helps Manage Symptoms of ADHD
Constantly seeking to focus our brains on work, the news, or other mentally intense things causes fatigue. Being outdoors reduces stress by using all our senses to experience life. When our physical senses are engaged, our brains get a break.
Being in nature naturally reboots our brain. After a nature time out, we return to the task at hand with greater focus and improved mental capacities.
A national study conducted in 2004 of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) found children of all ages, genders, and income groups had reduced symptoms of ADHD when activities were conducted in green spaces over the same activity conducted in any other setting.
Greenview for Hospital Patients Speeds Recovery
Studies show patients with a view of green space over no view or a view of cement had fewer postoperative complications, took fewer painkillers, and had shorter postoperative stays. A study conducted in the early eighties on patients subject to gall bladder removal in Pennsylvania showed those who had a green view had shorter hospital stays, fewer negative comments to nursing staff, and took fewer pain medications than similar patients with a view of a brick wall.
Green Exercise Benefits for People in Urban Areas
Along with citing the boost nature has on the immune system, New York States’ Department of Environmental conservation promotes nature as a way to reduce stress and anxiety, improve mood, enhance restful sleep, and increase your energy level.
A study conducted in Turkey where urbanization is rapidly increasing looked at the availability and characteristics of urban green spaces to adolescent males and females self-reported general health and obesity levels. Like many prior studies, this study found spending time outdoors improved feelings of good health and reduced obesity rates. For adolescents, green exercise increased with easy access to green spaces.
Several professionals in the District of Columbia are prescribing nature health. Dr. Robert Zarr, the founder and medical director of Park Rx America, works with medical professionals, social workers, public health officials, landscape architects, anthropologist, and more to accomplish their mission to decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness, and foster environmental stewardship by prescribing the benefits of nature.
The overall benefit to public health that comes from spending time in natural settings is so high mayors all over the United States are seeking to make their cities green exercise-friendly. To do this, they seek to provide green public parks or spaces within a ten-minute walk of every citizen’s home by 2050.
Reap the benefits of nature today. Go outside. Take a walk. Find a park. Watch the birds. Such simple things will reduce your stress, improve your mood, lower your blood pressure, and boost your immune system!
Article by Jae O. Haroldsen
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