Has your everyday routine changed drastically from a year ago? Have you been spending more time indoors lately? And more time on screens? Its time to combat “nature deficit disorder” and get outside!
While it might be challenging to try to experience the outdoors in the same ways that we did a year ago, consider adopting new ways to bring nature into your life. From wearing masks while walking or hiking on uncrowded trails, to getting sun and fresh air by spending more time sitting next to open windows, to creating a planter garden on your porch or windowsill, there are many ways to stay safe while you experience the health benefits of nature.
Currently half of the world lives in urban areas where they are not regularly exposed to nature. Spending time in nature has been linked to improved mood (with increases in the “feel good” neurotransmitter serotonin), lower levels of depression and feelings of stress, and brain activity in areas responsible for empathy, emotional stability, and love. On the other hand, urban environments are associated with increases in fear and anxiety.
Nature also may affect our immune function; a study at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School found that women who spent six hours in the woods over the course of two days had an increase in virus- and tumor-fighting white blood cells, which lasted at least seven days afterwards.
Short Nature Experiences Have Benefits
You don’t have to travel to a nature preserve or live in the wild to experience nature. Even short exposures can have benefits. A 2010 study published in Environmental Science and Technology found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation.
Some cultures embrace the healing benefits of nature therapy. In Japan, researchers studying “forest therapy,” also called “forest bathing,” have found that spending time in the woods creates measurable health benefits. It lowers levels of salivary cortisol, lowers blood pressure and pulse rate, and can enhance activity of natural killer (NK) cells, which are important immune system players that fight infection and cancer. Part of the positive effect may be attributed to inhalation of phytoncides, compounds in volatile oils given off by trees and other aromatic plants.
In Norway, friluftsliv translates directly from Norwegian as “free air life” and is the concept that being outside is good for a human being’s mind and spirit. It describes a way of life that is spent exploring and appreciating nature from walking in a natural area to sleeping outside to hiking. And there is a recent trend in “forest schools” for preschool and kindergarten, which have exploration in nature as a key element of their curriculum.
Even Virtual Nature Experiences Can Help
While actually being in nature is the ideal way to get the benefits of soil microbes, fresh air, phytoncides, and negative ion balance, merely looking at natural surroundings also has benefits.
An early study by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich showed that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery healed faster and with fewer complications when their room looked out on trees rather than a wall. In 1993, Ulrich and his colleagues also found that heart surgery patients in the intensive care unit who were given a water or tree scene to view were less anxious and needed less pain medication than those who were assigned a darker forest photograph, abstract art or no pictures at all.
A Japanese study in 2005 showed that just gazing at forest scenery for twenty minutes reduced salivary cortisol (stress hormone) levels by 13.4 percent, bringing them down to lower-than-average concentrations among city dwellers. In 2010 researchers in Korea found that people who were shown pictures of scenic, natural landscapes had increased brain activity in areas associated with recall of pleasant memories as compared to people shown urban landscapes
Bring Nature into Your Life, Knowing that You are Part of Nature:
• Plant a garden, in your yard, windowsill, or terrarium. Bring flowers or live plants into your home or office.
• Listen to birdsong—in nature or listen to a recording. I really like this album with nature sounds and soothing music.
• Visit a park or botanical garden and sit or walk without checking your phone. Breathe in the air and notice the aroma of the plants.
• Watch the changing shapes of clouds or gaze at the stars and planets in the night sky.
• Observe a body of water—anything from a tabletop fountain to the crashing waves of an ocean.
• Stand in the sunlight for at least ten minutes, feeling the warmth of the sun’s rays on your body.
• Walk barefoot on the earth, noticing how it feels on your feet.
This blog post includes tips and information from my book Resilient Health: How to Thrive in Our Toxic World.