The Effects of Nature on Mental and Physical Health
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.”
Evolutionary biologists including Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, author of Biophilia, believe nature was once (and still is) critical to human survival. Wilson explains this deep, intrinsic connection this way: “Throughout human existence, human biology has been embedded in the natural environment. Those who could smell the water, find the plants, follow the animals, and recognize the safe havens must have enjoyed survival advantages.”
“We are still hunters and gatherers; biologically we haven’t changed much,” says Richard Louv, chairman emeritus of the Children and Nature Network and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.“Several decades of research inspired by Wilson’s theory suggest that the human organism needs direct experience with nature.”
This intrinsic need becomes even more imperative now in the age of technology, says Louv, where nature serves as an “antidote” to the downsides of technological influences. “The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need,” he says. “In fact, we need what I’ve called the Hybrid Mind, both ways of knowing the world—the virtual and the natural. The ultimate multitasking is to live simultaneously in both the digital and physical worlds, using computers to maximize our powers to process intellectual data and natural environments to ignite all of our senses.”
Our deep biological affiliation with nature—in a modern digital age—is why Clifford runs “forest therapy” programs. These programs are rooted in what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, the idea that going for a walk in a forest—sans smartphones and digital devices—is a form of preventive, and even healing, medicine.
What the Research Says
The Japanese are definitely onto something with the idea of shinrin-yoku, which is inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices. This intrinsic connection with nature positively affects not only our minds, but our physical bodies, too.
Study after study has shown that the human brain and body both react to nature in ways that enhance our sense of connection, reduce pain, help fight anxiety and allow us to experience a deep sense of calm.
In fact, many researchers believe that nature benefits us at a molecular level, in our cells and neurons. Consider the following research.
Walking in Forests Boosts Immunity:
Japanese researchers wanted to explore the potential immune benefits of shinrin-yoku—so they studied the activity of people’s natural killer (NK) cells, a component of the immune system that fights cancer. They measured the cells before and after forest bathing. These natural killer cells were significantly increased after spending just a day out in nature. And the boost in immune cells remained for seven days after the trip ended.
Living Near Trees Makes Us Healthier:
Researchers at the University of Chicago found that, controlled for socioeconomic factors, just living in areas with lots of trees can make a person healthier, both psychologically and physically. Lead researcher, Marc G. Berman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, believes these health benefits could be the result of better air quality (trees help filter out pollution) and the fact that having trees nearby may encourage people to spend time outdoors.
What’s more, another study from the University of Essex found that viewing the color green—found abundantly in nature—results in fewer mood disturbances and less exertion when exercising (e.g. it makes exercise seem easier).
Being in Nature Boosts Energy:
Research in the Journal of Environmental Psychology shows that being surrounded by nature increases physical and mental energy. U.S. and Canadian psychologists conducted a series of studies asking participants to visualize certain images (including ones of nature), walk in outdoor and indoor environments, and look at various photos (including ones of natural elements)—and report how they were feeling in all situations. In each situation, men and women reported an increase in vitality when around natural elements (both visually and when physically surrounded by nature). This may be why, say the researchers, people are intrinsically drawn to natural settings.
Spending Time Outdoors Helps Us Age Gracefully:
People age 70 or older who spend time outdoors every day report fewer sleep problems and aches and pains than those who stay indoors, according to a study published in the Journal of Aging Health.
Walking Outside Increases Creativity:
Just as Dalbec experiences firsthand from her Berkshires hikes, so, too, do many people notice improved creativity after being active outdoors. And that feeling is backed by science: In one study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers found that walking out of doors helps boost inspiration and inventiveness.
“Being out in nature is what we call ‘softly fascinating’,” Berman says, “which means it isn’t all-consuming—and doesn’t require any directed effort or attention. This allows the mind to wander or daydream a bit, which is linked to increased creativity.”
Natural Surroundings Improve Concentration:
Australian researchers found that taking 40-second “micro breaks” during the day to look at a green, natural environment can improve concentration—and performance—while working. The research, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, emphasizes the importance of taking nature breaks (going for a walk or even looking at a photo of a natural scene), particularly when stressed or mentally fatigued.
What’s more, children diagnosed with ADHD who spend time playing outdoors report fewer symptoms of the disorder than those who do the same activities indoors, reports a study in the American Journal of Public Health. In separate studies, children who display symptoms of ADHD (inattention and impulsivity), but who have not been diagnosed, have also seen benefits from exposure to nature. Researchers believe the results can also be extrapolated to adults.“People [kids and adults alike] can only focus their attention for so long, before they get what’s called attention fatigue,” Berman says. This causes increasing difficulty paying attention. “But being around nature—with its calming, softly fascinating stimuli—has been shown to restore and replenish this directed attention,” he says.
Nature Hikes Reduce Anxiety and Depression:
A Stanford University study found that walking for 90 minutes in nature showed—through brain scans that track blood flow through the brain—decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with anxiety and depression. This study, the researchers say, shows that nature actually has the power to change the brain.
Nature Helps Recovery and Reduces Pain:
Researcher Roger S. Ulrich, director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, conducted a study on patients who underwent surgery. He found that patients who had a view of trees healed faster, had less pain and had shorter hospital stays than those who had a view of a wall.
Seeing Nature Leads to Greater Work Satisfaction:
Office workers with a view of nature outside their windows liked their jobs more, had less stress and greater work satisfaction and were healthier, according to research published in the journal Public Health Reports.
Contact with Nature Leads to Less Crime:
A study published in the journal BioScience found that the greater the amount of greenspace in a community, the less crime that area had—even in areas with lower levels of education, income and other socioeconomic factors.
Body, Spirit and Nature Inherently Linked
All this research comes as no surprise to Venkat Srinivasan, manager of operations and guest experience at the Art of Living Retreat Center, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Boone, North Carolina. Here, the practice of Ayurveda (an ancient medical system) is part of daily life.
The essence of Ayurveda honors our close connection with nature, and emphasizes why nature is essential to health, Srinivasan says. “In Ayurveda, our environment is our food,” he says. “And our food is medicine. When we stop and listen to nature, we start to follow the peaceful rhythms of nature and become in tune with it.”
According to the principles of Ayurveda, being out of sync with nature can lead to illness and unhappiness—a concept modern science may be starting to confirm. “We eat food that’s out of season, we sleep when we want to, not when nature dictates by darkness (which is why so many people have trouble sleeping), we’re attached to our computers and phones,” Srinivasan says. “We’re spending less time in nature and more time indoors. And this is throwing our inherent natural biorhythms out of balance—which is causing disease and discontent. When we’re in tune with nature outside, automatically our lifestyle and biorhythms become in harmony within us.”
Our spiritual side might just become in sync as well.
A University of California-Berkeley study found that taking in nature, viewing beautiful art and having religious experiences all have the ability to inspire positive emotions, including awe and wonder. The researchers found that these emotions may be enough to make people act kinder and more altruistically. What’s more, these feelings of awe and wonder also lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. (Sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with poor health and disorders such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.)
When participants of one University of Illinois study viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up (as measured by an fMRI).
That may be why Todd W. Ferguson, a sociologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, found through his research that people who live in awe-inspiring natural settings (with features such as mountains, lakes, waterfalls, streams and coastlines) are less likely to be part of organized religion. “Being out in nature can be a spiritual experience,” Ferguson says. “Nature can be a connection to others as well as to the divine—and is an avenue where people can get spiritual fulfillment.”
This connection to something greater than oneself—call it awe or a sense of wonder—is something Dalbec experiences each time she sets out on a hike. “Nature expands our gratitude for life, and it makes us realize that everything here is not all about us,” she says. “There definitely is something greater—call it spirituality, religion, a connection to others, or just true inner and outer balance.”
Getting in Tune With Nature
Like most of us, you probably can’t quit your day job to spend all your time in nature, but you can follow these tips to help nourish your body, mind and soul’s craving for the natural world. Doing so might help you get into balance with the world around you.
Bring nature into your home design
Arrange furniture to take advantage of sunlight coming through windows, place indoor plants and even water gardens in your home, and incorporate natural ventilation by opening windows whenever possible, says Richard Louv, author of the book Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life.
“It’s surprising how many technology leaders own off-the-grid cabin retreats,” Louv says. “They know they need time to reboot, and that time in nature stimulates their creativity.”
Find time, every day, to get outdoors
Seek space that’s green and filled with trees: a local hiking trail, a park, a tree-lined quiet street.
Try a retreat
Sometimes getting away from it all is the only way to slow down and smell the roses, literally.
Pick a “sit spot”
Find a special place where you can go to connect with nature—whether it’s under a tree in your backyard or in a rooftop garden, Louv says. “Everyone needs a special place away from peer, academic and relationship pressures,” Louv says.
Seek out guided forest therapy hikes near you
It’s fine to head out on your own, but guided hikes—which tend to be longer—can help you start to become aware of your surroundings, so you get out of your head and into nature. Find one near you.
Eat seasonal unprocessed foods
Nature provides what we need during each season (with a little preservation work thrown in for deep winter). Eating out of season throws our bodies out of whack with nature around us. As spring and summer near, take advantage of the abundant vegetables and fruits in season—and steer clear of processed foods.
Take your workout outdoors
Crunched for time? Leave your headphones (and music) at home and walk, run or bike outdoors. You’ll feel invigorated from the exercise—and from having all your senses acutely aware of the environment around you.
Valerie Latona , the former editor in chief of Shape, draws inspiration and creativity from daily nature walks with her shih tzu, Captain Jack.
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