By Ann Constantino,
Photo by Vanessa Garcia.
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out I found, was really going in.” –John Muir
There is a growing collection of research showing the health benefits of spending time in nature. If this sounds like something a rural population already gets, you may be right, but read on to see what the studies show and if you might benefit from fine-tuning your outdoor time to have a positive effect on all kinds of health issues.
Time spent in forests, parks, gardens, and along coastlines improves moods.
“Green and Blue Spaces and Mental Health” is a report recently issued by the World Health Organization showing that time spent in forests, parks, gardens, and along coastlines improves moods, mindsets, and mental health by re-establishing a sense of belonging and being a part of something bigger than ourselves. Daily stresses, including fears around climate change, are lessened by being reminded that as a species on this planet “we are embedded in the natural world,” according to Patricia Hasbach, a psychotherapist based in Eugene, Oregon.
“When we’re in nature, we’re generally operating at a slower pace,” says Hasbach. The sensory stimulation fostered by this slowness can enhance one’s sense of being in the moment, often switching off endless ruminations about the past or future.
Heather Eliasson, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that the benefits of spending time in nature include improved sleep and cognitive function, and increased physical activity. She says research has also shown lower risk for diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Healthier birth weights and lowered risk of premature death have also been shown among those getting plenty of time outside.
People who spend time in nature five times a week had a reduced need for a variety of medications.
A study published last year in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that people who spend time in nature five times a week had a reduced need for a variety of medications, including psychotropic, hypertension, and asthma drugs, compared to those who do not.
A 2021 study published in Scientific Reports teases out the difference between simply living in areas that are more natural, such as rural Humboldt, and voluntarily going to green spaces, whether you live rural or urban. Research suggests that voluntary immersion in nature produces more benefits. So spending hours and hours on your phone while living out in the hills doesn’t quite count as spending time in nature.
Many things we do outside require a level of physical activity, increasing the likelihood you’ll be getting some of that exercise you’ve been meaning to do. For urbanites, the air is often cleaner and the atmosphere is often quieter in the spaces that are more and more often being referred to as “health resources.”
The Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing, in which one walks through the forest, deeply inhaling phytoncides, substances that plants use to protect against germs and parasites, can also have positive effects on people. Each of the six types of phytoncides has its own properties, with some overlap, that read like a list of health-promoting attributes: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic, sedative, anti-depressant, and gastro-protective, these substances are all breathed in generously during the practice of forest-bathing.
A 2022 study showed that access to open spaces as children proved a strong predictor of better mental health as adults.
The science umbrella under which much of this research may reside is known as “attention restoration theory.” Environmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, Marc Berman explains that the theory proposes that spending time in nature reduces mental fatigue and improves ability to focus. He says that “directed attention” such as what we use to do intense work or study is fatigable, and “involuntary attention”, such as the way we absorb sensory and cognitive input while in nature is, by contrast, not fatigable. Being in nature stimulates what he calls “soft fascination”, a pleasant, non-threatening backdrop to relaxed thought and awareness. Spending time resting the mind in this way can restore it for resuming more directed tasks.
When we are in nature, we connect to old ways of perceiving the world.
Children who took a 30-minute walk in the woods were better able to complete various cognitive and physical tests than those who took a 30-minute walk in an urban area.
Another theory being considered is that when we are in nature, we connect to old ways of perceiving the world. In other words, it’s still somewhere in our historical memory that a sudden silence among birds might signal something dangerous approaching. We sense things about the weather without needing to go to a website. The hair may stand up on the back of our neck when a mountain lion is unseen but nearby. This gives us a sense of being interwoven with nature’s ways and can provide a welcoming context to those who feel alienated by a separation from the natural world many experience as normal.
Another hypothesis first put forward by German-American social scientist Erich Fromm and further developed by American biologist EO Wilson is known as the “biophilia hypothesis“. This idea suggests that all humans have a strong inclination to be close to the natural world. It is supported by the theory that there is an evolutionary advantage to maintaining close ties to the natural world, proven by more successful existence within it when we maintain that intimacy.
When we look around at the environmental and health challenges facing human culture today, from climate to pollution, it does not seem like much of a leap to imagine many of these issues arising as a result of disconnection from nature. Wouldn’t it be grand if a small thing we can do to improve our personal health might end up helping us save the planet as well?
Many studies are recommending a minimum of two hours per week intentionally spent in nature, not chatting or texting or otherwise multi-tasking, but rather experiencing that involuntary and indefatigable awareness and attention the natural world demands of us as full participants. However, even just short stints outside can break up a busy office or work day and lower your stress levels. What a great reminder that we are all in this together, perhaps even more interdependently than we ever knew.
Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.