If you’re looking for a magic bullet that will improve and protect both your mental and physical health, look no further than outside your front door.
Spending time in nature — even in urban or suburban green spaces and parks — has been proven again and again to be about as potent a preventive “medicine” as they come. For example, research shows regularly communing with nature can help do everything from lower stress and improve mood to boost your immune system and reduce your risk of chronic diseases.
It makes sense that nature supports and promotes health: Since the beginning of time, plants have always been the yin to humans’ yang, says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan.
“If you look at everything that happens in life, it’s all basically supported by plants: We produce carbon dioxide and other waste, and plants recycle and recirculate it back into oxygen and carbohydrates that then keep sustaining life,” Dr. Rawls explains. “Nature also affects our mood directly as we breathe in all the wonderful, natural chemicals produced by plants. Together, it all helps create a healthier state in your body.”
The Right Dose of Nature
Before we get to the specifics of how nature keeps you healthy, know that you don’t need to spend long days lost in the wilderness to reap any benefit. A recent study in the journal Scientific Reports of nearly 20,000 people found that a total of 120 minutes a week seems to be the magic number for increased well-being and health.
The same study found that it also didn’t matter how you split up your outdoor time — get in one or two long sessions or several short ones throughout the week. Other research, meanwhile, suggests that even as little as 10 minutes a day may be enough to boost your mood.
The other good news: Benefits have been reported in all sorts of different natural environments. Open and undeveloped land; forests; “blue” spaces near oceans, rivers, and lakes; urban parks; and even simple gardens and greenery on city and neighborhood streets — they all seem to have a positive effect on humans.
10 Benefits Of Getting A Daily Dose of Nature
1. Reduced Stress
“We are super dependent on plants and nature for food, oxygen, medicine, and supportive herbs, and so being in nature tends to have a very soothing effect,” Dr. Rawls says. “A natural environment just makes us feel comfortable.”
For example, spending 20 minutes in a “very natural” or “mostly natural” environment reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to time in more built-up areas, reports a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Other research has found similar cortisol-lowering effects from short periods outdoors, as well as subjective reductions in feelings of stress, tension, and anxiety.
Two theories help explain nature’s effects. The first, Attention Restoration Theory (ACT), posits that nature helps alleviate what’s known as attention fatigue. In our day-to-day life indoors or at our job or around town, there’s so much to focus on that it increases stress and depletes us mentally. Since we humans have evolved from living in and amongst nature, spending time in green spaces naturally allows for more effortless and natural brain function, which helps ease pressure, restore balance, and lower stress.
The second, somewhat related theory, Psycho-Evolutionary Theory (PET) or Stress Recovery Theory, hinges on the idea that nature puts humans back in touch with environmental qualities such as openness, water, and plants (which were important sources of food) that our ancestors positively equated with survival. In other words, because we evolved from mostly natural environments, we’re hardwired to find qualities of nature to be relaxing and non-threatening.
Regardless, nature’s proven ability to calm our nerves and help us feel more relaxed not only feels good, it has an incredible ripple effect on other aspects of our health.
2. Enhanced Immune Function
Lowered stress and feeling calm is a big part of why spending time outdoors seems to also improve our immunity, according to a review in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Because of nature’s relaxing qualities, our body shifts from stress-induced fight-or-flight mode to its antithesis, rest-and-digest.
That activation of our parasympathetic nervous system (versus our sympathetic nervous system) sends the signal that it’s okay to invest more resources in functions and systems related to long-term survival and health maintenance, of which our immune system plays a predominant role. On the other hand, when we’re in a constant fight-or-flight mode, our body shuts down nonessential functions. As a result, our immune system — and lots of other aspects of health — suffers.
There’s more to the story, however. Research out of Japan shows that “forest bathing” — a nice way of saying spending leisure time outdoors in a forest — increases levels of the body’s natural killer cells (which roam around looking for harmful pathogens), as well as other markers that signal robust and healthy immunity. Experts believe the effect is due at least in part to compounds released from trees and other plants called phytoncides.
When immersed in nature, we breathe in these antimicrobial compounds, which lab studies show help support normal immune system activity and are directly antimicrobial. They also help decrease our body’s stress response and anxiety and instead promote relaxation. “Phytoncides stimulate our immune system and feelings of well-being,” Dr. Rawls says.
Forests and other green and blue spaces also provide higher levels of oxygen and negative air ions — aka electron-rich air, Dr. Rawls adds. That’s key since free radicals, which break down tissue, are essentially positively charged electron-deficient particles.
If you’re exposed to too many free radicals through pollution, stress, or other factors, it throws off your immune response and triggers high levels of disease-causing and age-accelerating inflammation. “However, breathing in electrons helps neutralize damaging free radicals that otherwise drive inflammation,” Dr. Rawls says.
3. Healthier Lungs
Urban areas are high in airborne pollutants, free radicals that, when breathed in, can damage tissue and contribute to inflammation and other harmful effects. Green and blue spaces, on the other hand, deliver cleaner, healthier, more oxygenated air.
The good news is that even small green areas in urban environments lead to better air quality — and health. One study, for example, found that planting trees and other natural vegetation near sources of pollution, like factories, reduced pollution by 27%, which was more than common man-made solutions like air-scrubbers that attach to smokestacks. Other research finds that the more green spaces and gardens in an urban community, the fewer hospitalizations there are for asthma.
4. Lower Risk of Chronic Diseases
Reduced stress and a strong immune system are two likely explanations for why exposure to green spaces has been linked to a lower risk for or improvement of a long list of illnesses and issues. One large meta-analysis published in Environmental Research found time in nature may be useful in helping treat and prevent diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol, asthma, stroke, cancer, neurological conditions, and premature mortality.
5. Healthier Aging
As with chronic disease prevention, lower stress and enhanced immunity from time in nature seems to naturally help slow down the aging process. Both reduce free radicals and dangerous inflammation that otherwise can burn out cells’ mitochondria.
And although you can’t always “feel” that type of aging — nor when you’re protected from it — being out in nature can trigger more noticeable effects as you get older. For example, research in the Journal of Aging and Health found that among a group of 70-year-olds, those who went outdoors daily reported significantly fewer health complaints seven years later, including fewer aches and pain, sleep problems, and declines in daily activities.
Another study among those ages 65 to 86 showed that interacting with green and blue spaces like parks, gardens, neighborhood greenery, lakes, and the ocean helps motivate older adults to stay active. It also provokes feelings of rejuvenation and otherwise positively influences physical, mental, and social health.
6. Improved Mood
Study upon study has found that nature is an effective and powerful antidepressant. For example, one review determined that as little as 10 or more minutes outdoors boosted happiness levels in college students, and it prevented high levels of anxiety, depression, and other common mental health issues.
Other research shows spending time in nature boosts self-esteem, helping shift people’s mood from depressed, stressed and anxious to more calm and balanced. It also helps buffer or dampen depressive and other negative effects of stressful life events. And another study linked feeling connected to nature to greater vitality and a sense that life has meaning and overall well-being.
Research out of Stanford provides a clue as to what’s driving these results: Scientists had two groups of people walk for 90 minutes either in a nature setting or urban setting. After the walk, nature-walkers reported less rumination — i.e. repetitively and passively thinking about a problem or negative emotions rather than a solution — and showed reduced activity in their brain’s subgenual prefrontal cortex, the area linked to rumination and depression.
Other studies in the journal Emotion — which found that time in nature reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — suggest another possibility for nature’s mental-health effects: The emotion of awe. Awe is a sense of wonderment that connects you to something bigger than yourself, and it’s a common one we experience when out in nature. Researchers say awe seems to be the positive emotion or sensation that helps best improve one’s sense of well-being — more than joy, contentment, pride and others.
7. Faster Healing and Less Pain
A famous study from the 80s conducted by Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D., who was a pioneer of research into the therapeutic benefits of nature in building design, found that hospital patients who had a view of green space out the window recovered from surgery and left the hospital faster and took fewer pain medications than those whose windows faced a brick wall. Subsequent research revealed similar effects of not only views out a window, but also nature scenes in paintings as well as access to plants, gardens, and green spaces on hospital grounds.
8. Better Focus and Cognitive Ability
While it can seem as if there’s plenty to see when you’re out on a hike or exploring outdoors, nature actually gives your brain a break from the overstimulation common in other settings. Ultimately, that break may help you focus and think more efficiently.
That’s one explanation for why research finds that spending time in nature improves cognitive performance — especially on tasks that demand focus and attention. In one study, a nature walk boosted cognitive performance by 20%. Other research, meanwhile, shows time in nature effectively helps improve attention span and other symptoms in kids with ADHD.
9. Stronger Social Connections
Positive relationships, community ties, and feelings of connectedness have long been linked to better mental and physical health as well as longevity, and research suggests green spaces encourage and maintain those beneficial social ties.
For example, research conducted in Chicago Public Housing developments found that the presence of trees and grass draw people outdoors, where they’re more apt to linger and socialize with neighbors than those who live in relatively barren developments dominated by concrete and brick. In fact, those who lived in areas with more green space felt stronger feelings of unity and belonging, knew more neighbors, and felt more willing to help and support others.
Other research, meanwhile, suggests that the positive feelings elicited by nature leads to increases in what’s called prosocial behavior — the type of actions and behavior that help us build and strengthen important social ties. For example, in one study, viewing beautiful nature scenes made people more generous, while the presence of a beautiful plant promoted altruistic behavior.
10. More Energy
Feeling drained? Sluggish? Worn out? A series of studies published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology proves what most of us have hopefully experienced at some point or another: Being in nature spikes feelings of vitality, a specific type of positive physical and mental energy characterized by a sense of enthusiasm, aliveness, and vigor.
Aside from feeling good, vitality is also strongly linked to well-being, resilience, and good physical and mental health. What’s interesting is that the researchers controlled for physical and social activity, finding that the natural elements themselves seem responsible for the effect, not increases in exercise or socializing. While experts are still trying to figure out what’s going on, the vitalizing effects are likely due to nature’s restorative and stress-relieving capabilities, as well as our evolutionary connection to nature and natural elements.
Whether you relax in your backyard or park, take a walk, stroll, jog, bike, or paddle, garden or otherwise play, aim to get in touch with nature in some way every day. Breathe in the fresh air, take in the green and blue sights, and listen for the rustlings of trees, rushing of water and sounds of wildlife. A daily dose of nature is free, fun, and wildly effective — just the medicine we all need.
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