Nature = Health
Our physical and mental health improves when we spend time in nature. Fact. It's time to feel more connected to our natural environment, improve our own health and realise why we so desperately need it.
Here in Scotland, spring is just around the corner. After a long, cold winter, I will be glad to see flowers in the parks, leaves on the trees and hear birdsong filling the air. I become a bit of a hermit when its cold, but when the sun shines I love to get out into nature! I know it makes me feel better, to be outside, away from screens, (and sometimes I’ll admit, away from people…). I feel reconnected, and feeling like that feels right, on a very visceral level.
But so many of us are not experiencing this. More than 50% of the world’s population live in urban areas, a figure that is set to rise even higher. And to me it feels like people are more interested in staring at their phones rather than foliage. Nature deficit disorder is a real thing, it causes the diminished use of our senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of illness.
There is a lot of research out there on why nature is so good for us, so in a bid to encourage more people to strap on their walking boots, I’ll attempt to summarise it here.
Nature helps me find calm, I can feel the stress leaving my body when I walk through a forest or even a wee bit of green space in the middle of my city. It’s clear that our mental health improves when we’re in nature, and when we walk in green spaces it helps our physical health too. Mental and physical health are inextricably linked and nature helps both, studies confirm it. People with depression and anxiety experience an increase in mood after walking or undertaking exercise in nature. Levels of cortisol are reduced, lowering stress levels. Those experiencing mental ill heath also discover improvements in self-esteem, especially young people. Children who spend time in natural environments do not suffer from attention fatigue as much, and children with ADHD show a reduction symptoms.
The more time we spend in nature, the more alive we feel. The greater the sense of vitality you have, the more energetic you feel, and the more resilient to illness and stress you are. You also feel healthier - one study shows that, within urban environments, our perception of our general health increases the more open spaces we have. We even feel kinder towards each other the more connected to nature we feel - our empathy and charitable behaviours increase.
In terms of physical health, the list is long. Our immune system is boosted, our blood pressure is reduced, our sleep improves and we recover from illness or surgery quicker. Hospital patients who have “green” views from their window have shorter postoperative stays, take fewer painkillers and have slightly fewer post surgical complications than those who had either no view or could see a cement wall.
I read a particularly interesting bit of research about forests. They are my favourite place to walk, I love feeling humbled by the tall trees and fascinated by the animals, birds and plants all around me, both visible and hidden. But what I didn’t know was how much I was helping my body just by being there! It seems that when we breathe in the fresh, forest air, we breathe in phytoncides. These are airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects - they have antibacterial and anti fungal qualities which help the plants to fight disease. Turns out that they help us too! When we breathe them in, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that kills tumour and virus-infected cells in our bodies. I have said this before, and I will say it again, nature is amazing!
I know that some people reading this may not be able to get out into nature, even if they want to. Nature is accessible, but not to everyone. But don’t despair, even if you stay at home you can still reap the benefits. If you have a garden, spending time gardening reduces stress and improves mood. And if you can’t get our at all, just watch tv! What? Yep, watching nature documentaries even for short periods of time has been proven to cause a rise of positive emotions so we feel happier and negative emotions like stress, fear and anxiety decline. Thanks Sir David!
No tv? No problem, just looking at pictures helps! Looking at pictures of trees reduces the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and reduces blood pressure.
I hope this has convinced you… Take a break from life, enjoy the peace and beauty of nature. It’s free and there are no bad side effects. Your brain and your body will thank you.