Presented by BetterHelp
Since the beginning of recorded history, it seems like humans have known that their relationship with nature is something pretty special. From the romantic poets to the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and more, artists, writers and the rest of us have been fascinated by nature’s effects. And we were right to respect nature’s power. Today, a robust body of research helps us understand a little more about why nature is so important to us, along with how exposure to nature can help make us both physically and mentally healthier. Keep reading for more.
Why is Nature So Important?
The short answer is that we aren’t entirely sure – but researchers have offered up several theories. First, there’s the assumption that our connection to nature stems from our ancestors’ reliance on their physical environment for their literal survival – perhaps we’re hard-wired to crave and revere a natural setting that sustained us in generations past. Or, there’s the theory that being in nature simply lowers our stress levels, or that exposure to nature replenishes our cognitive reserves.
While we may not fully understand the mechanism behind it, we do have good reason to believe that exposure to nature is good for us – in fact, nature has been linked to many physical and mental benefits. And like other approaches, including in-person or online therapy, spending time in nature can be an effective tool in the toolbox when it comes to managing the symptoms of many physical and mental health conditions. Let’s take a closer look.
Physical Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
We know that we often feel better after spending time in nature – and the effect is a pretty big deal. In fact, some studies support the idea that time spent in nature can help reduce blood pressure, improve immune function and even speed up post-operative recovery. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that spending time in nature often involves physical activity, such as running, walking or cycling, so it’s been difficult for researchers to isolate the exposure to nature as the cause of improved physical characteristics.
Some of that improvement may also be because of the physical activity participants are engaging in while outdoors. In any case, below we’ve outlined some of the physical benefits attributed to spending time outdoors.
Research shows a positive relationship between time spent in nature and improved physical health. For example, exposure to outdoor spaces has been linked to lower levels of obesity, but it’s difficult to determine whether the natural environment or the related physical activity is the key variable. In one study, U.S. children exposed to green space had lower recorded Body Mass Index numbers, and in another, areas with high tree density were linked to lower rates of obesity.
Nature also may help us sleep – some research shows a positive link between nature exposure and high quality sleep. There’s some indication that the more time we spend in nature, the more likely we are to sleep longer and with better quality. There’s also a healthy body of research showing that sleep is essential to good health, both physical and mental. So by improving the quality of our sleep, exposure to nature may also make us healthier overall.
Preventing Heart Disease
Enjoying nature has been shown to lower both stress and high blood pressure, which ultimately is good for our cardiovascular health. Some studies have shown that participants with lower exposure to green space are more likely to experience poor outcomes after a stroke and report higher mortality rates from cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.
In addition, nature exposure has been shown in some research to have a positive effect on diabetes, some types of cancer and overall mortality rates.
Mental Health Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
Stress is seemingly around us all the time – but the great news is that spending time in nature may reverse the negative effects of stress on our mental health and foster more positive feelings of well-being. In fact, a collective body of research supports the notion that time spent outdoors can reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies, plus lowering blood pressure, heart rate and our own perceived level of threat. All of this contributes to a stronger sense of overall well-being.
In addition, spending time in natural environments has been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression among adults. Many study participants have reported that spending time in nature provides a sense of escape from their everyday lives and encourages feelings of relaxation. Other research has suggested that spending time in nature may reduce depressive feelings. In particular, results of one recent study indicated that spending time in nature reduced feelings of isolation, promoted calm, and lifted mood among psychiatric patients. In short, all indications are that nature is powerful medicine when it comes to supporting our mental health.
Cognitive Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
Some research suggests that spending time outdoors may actually help us think more clearly and process information more effectively. It has been shown, for example, that children in schools with ample access to green space enjoy greater cognitive development and may even more quickly learn to regulate their emotions. Similarly, adults in housing situations that offer access to green space have shown improvement in concentration, executive function and focus of attention.
Some experiments also suggests that exposure to nature may increase working memory and cognitive flexibility. In fact, in one study, participants who listened to natural sounds, like the crash of waves or the song of cicadas, performed better on highly demanding cognitive tasks than those who listened to a more urban soundtrack, like sirens, honking horns, etc.
How Much Time in Nature Is Enough?
If you’re not naturally attracted to the outdoors, it might sound like a daunting task to increase your exposure to nature. But take heart – if you can spend a total of two hours per week outside, that may be the sweet spot for getting the most mental and physical benefits. And that means two hours spent all at once, or spread out among smaller experiences throughout the week. According to a study from the University of Exeter, the two-hour mark is essential. Those in the study who spent at least two hours per week outside reported better mental and physical health than participants who spent less time outdoors. But for participants who spent less than two hours in nature, no significant benefits were reported.
It seems clear that spending time in nature is good for us – and it’s never too late to increase your time spent outdoors. You can start small by taking a daily walk in your neighborhood and then progress to whatever makes sense for you – whether that includes a beach vacation or repelling in the mountains. Or just eating your lunch in the park every day. However you choose to engage with the outdoors, we’re confident you’ll find that it makes you feel better, both physically and mentally. And that’s a great thing.
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