Can Nature Improve Your Health?

Can spending time in nature improve your health and well-being? For those of us who love the wilderness, the answer is a resounding yes. We feel calmer after hitting a trail or paddling a winding river. But is nature responsible for these positive feelings or is there another explanation?

Beams of sunlight shine through a temperate rainforest. Scenes like this help alleviate stress and promote well-being.

Urban Living and the Need for Nature

Since 2007, the number of people living in cities worldwide has exceeded those living in rural environments. As cities grow and expand, access to greenspace shrinks, and with it opportunities to connect with nature. For many urban residents, interactions with natural spaces are limited to the occasional walk through a city park. For others, greenspace isn’t a part of their day-to-day lives.

The rise of nature-based therapy programs and wilderness recreation suggests that urban spaces are not meeting our needs. People are searching for ways to reconnect with nature. Some of us are willing to travel long distances for a few hours of solitude in the wilderness.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of studies found a strong correlation between nature and our well-being. After observing and interacting with animals, plants, and wilderness, people reported a number of beneficial physiological effects. Natural environments fostered recovery from mental fatigue and stress. They helped improve concentration and productivity. One study even showed that patients recovered faster from gallbladder surgery if they had a view of nature from their window. Additionally, across cultures people reported preferring natural landscapes to urban ones.

In light of this growing body of research, Harvard professor E. O. Wilson introduced the “biophilia hypothesis” which surmised that human beings have an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike process.” In other words, people were drawn to the natural world.

New Research Confirms Nature’s Positive Effects

New research is expanding our understanding of the health benefits of time spent in nature and re-confirming our need for natural spaces. In the last decade, research showed that living 300m of greenspace had positive effects on mental well-being, that spending 120 minutes a week in nature was associated with good health, and that gardening could improve mood and pro-social behaviour.

In 2018, a review of more than 140 studies showed that time spent in natural environments was associated with decreased heart rate, blood pressure, HDL cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke, hypertension, coronary heart disease, premature birth, and all-cause mortality. Researchers also found that “even brief, mundane experiences with nature can elevate people’s positive emotions.”

In Japan, Dr. Qing Li’s research helped popularize shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” He showed that a 3 day/2 night trip to a forested area increased human immune function by elevating the levels of NK cells (natural killer cells) and their activity. These positive effects could last for more than 30 days after the trip. A later study demonstrated that cypress phytoncides (aromatic volatile organic compounds) were partly responsible for the increase in NK cell activity.

New research also looks at how experiences of awe in nature are linked to positive changes in well-being and stress. Experiencing awe was also linked to increased ethical decision making, generosity, pro-social values, and a reduced sense of self-importance.

Prescribing Nature

Given the research from the past 40 years, it’s no surprise that more physicians are encouraging their patients to get outside. In Shetland, UK, doctors can give “nature prescriptions” to accompany conventional medical treatment. In Japan, doctors are teaming up with local guides to offer forest therapy sessions to patients in some of Tokyo’s largest hospitals.

If proximity to and time spent in natural environments helps prevent, mitigate, and treat various ailments, it is likewise important that cities are designed to prioritize greenspace and consequently health. The past decades of research offer exciting new opportunities for partnerships between public health officials, policy makers, city planners, and conservationists.

Already, people are taking things into their own hands. Green roofs, community gardens, and “guerrilla gardening” are on the rise. More government funding for green city initiatives would go a long way to promote health.

What Are You Waiting For? Get Outside!

If nothing else, this research should inspire us to get outside and enjoy nature. You don’t have to go on a wilderness trip to experience the health benefits; there might be little ways to increase your daily exposure. Maybe that’s taking a walk through an urban park, adding some plants to your balcony, or putting up a bird feeder in your backyard.

If you are itching for a bigger adventure, check to see if your city has any outdoor clubs. Members will often carpool to parks and hiking trails.  Outdoor clubs and members might also have gear they are willing to share.

So, what are you waiting for? Get outside and enjoy nature!

Sources

Here is a list of links from the sources I drew on for this story. If you’re looking to learn more they’re a great place to start.

Healthy nature healthy people: ‘contact with nature’ as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations” by Cecily Maller, Mardie Townsend, Anita Pryor, Peter Brown and Lawrence St Leger.

Awe in nature heals: Evidence from military veterans, at-risk youth, and college students” by Craig Anderson, Maria Monroy, and Dacher Keltner.

Absorption: How nature experiences promote awe and other positive emotions” by Matthew Ballew and Allen Omoto.

Nature connectedness: Associations with well-being and mindfulness” by Andrew Howell, Raelyne Dopko, Holli-Anne Passmore, and Karen Buro.

Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing” by Matthew White, et. al.

The Biophilia Hypothesis by Stephen Keller and Edward Wilson.

Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function” by Qing Li.

Effect of phytoncide from trees on human natural killer cell function” by Qing Li, et. al.

The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes” by C. Twohig-Bennett and A. Jones.

Awe in nature heals: Evidence from military veterans, at-risk youth, and college students” by Craig Anderson, Maria Monroy, and Dacher Keltner.

Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior” by Paul Piff, Pia Dietze, Matthew Feinberg, Daniel Stancato, and Dacher Keltner.

View through a window may influence recovery from surgery” by R.S. Ulrich.

Gardening on a psychiatric inpatient unit: Cultivating recovery” by Huibrie Pieters, Leilanie Ayala, et. al.

Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *