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The Effects of Nature on Mental and Physical Health

Science is proving that time spent outdoors can have a calming, rejuvenating effect on your mental and physical health.

| March/April 2016

  • Find time every day to spend time outdoors to maximize your connection with nature, even if it's only for a few minutes at a time.
    Photo by iStock
  • A connection with the outdoors is vitally important to your mental and physical health.
    Photo by iStock
  • Walking in nature for 90 minutes decreases activity in the area of the brain associated with anxiety and depression.
    Photo by iStock
  • Several studies have found that exercising outdoors confers more benefits than indoor exercise.
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  • Consider taking your work outdoors whenever possible. Spending time in nature increases energy, concentration and creativity.
    Photo by iStock
  • Studies show that people with a view of nature at their workplace take 19 percent fewer sick days.
    Photo by iStock

We’ve all felt the calming effects of nature—how being outdoors amid the trees, fresh air, breezes and birdsong helps us slow down and bring our bodies and minds back into rhythm.

Michelle Dalbec experiences this every time she hits the wooded trails near her home in the Berkshires, a rural region in western Massachusetts. Dalbec—a yoga instructor and educator at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts—is no stranger to staying fit, eating healthy and banishing stress. But it’s nature and being outdoors she credits for helping clear her mind, get focused and become more creative. (“I’m filled with amazing insights and ideas when I come off the trail,” she says.)

“Once I get outside, my myopic view of my life is transformed,” says Dalbec, having just returned from the 90-minute hike she tries to fit in four to five mornings a week. “When I get out in nature, I remember that I’m part of the bigger picture. It instills in me a humbleness and I find myself being so grateful for everything in my life, for everything that I am.”

Nature’s Link to Our Very Essence

It turns out, Dalbec is right about nature’s calming, creativity-boosting and mind-expanding effects—studies around the world confirm that being in nature helps us become more relaxed and innovative. And if 90 minutes five days a week sounds like a major time commitment, consider this: Being outdoors has also been scientifically proven to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones.

And time in nature offers still more benefits, says M. Amos Clifford, founder and director of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs in Santa Rosa, California. Being out in nature is necessary to the very essence of who we are, he says.

“We’ve evolved as human beings in nature,” Clifford says. “We spent the first several million years of our existence in forests. And it’s only really been for the last minute—on an evolutionary time scale—that we’ve been living in cities and in modern, industrialized life. Our bodies and our nervous systems need nature to recalibrate ourselves.”

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