If the natural world could be packaged as a pill and sold in pharmacies it would be flying off the shelves – such are its proven physical, mental, and emotional benefits. But luckily it can’t be packaged, or sold, which is good news because it means that it’s free. All it costs you is time. But you would go far to find a better way to spend your time if you are looking for ways to invest in your health and well-being.
Nature is a source of energy, sustenance and healing for human beings. It is our natural home. Our brains and bodies evolved over thousands of years through connection and interaction with the natural world and as such, there is a deep biological yearning in us to reconnect with the soil and the sky, the seas and the trees. This longing is literally encoded in our DNA.
So, what are the benefits of spending time in nature? How does nature actually affect us?
Studies have shown that spending as little as 20 minutes in a vegetation rich natural environment can increase vitality. Vitality is a sense of enthusiasm, energy, and zest for life that allows us to operate at optimal functioning, but it also includes our ability to face challenges in resourceful and productive ways.
The reduced stress that people feel as a result of spending time in nature may be a factor in increasing immune function but Scientists suggest that is more down to phytoncides, which are the airborne chemicals that plants and trees emit to protect them from rotting and insects. These chemicals seem to have positive health benefits for human beings. People who spent time amongst plants were found to have lower cortisol levels, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.
In 2013 over 10,000 Canadians took part in a 30-day challenge in which they spent 30 minutes each day in nature. Participants reported experiencing increased levels of happiness and well-being, reduced stress and negativity, improved sleep, increased productivity, and increased energy levels.
A study in 2012 found that backpackers who had been hiking in the wilderness for four days were found to increase their levels of creativity by more than 50%. Researchers suggest that the level of stimulation and distraction that we experience in modern society drains our resources and prevents creative insight. When people are removed from this environment and put in a wilderness setting, their minds have the space and time to open to deeper wells of creative inspiration.
In a Korean study using brain imaging, participants who were told to look at a picture of a nature scene increased activity in parts of the brain associated with empathy and altruism, while those who looked an urban scene were found to experience increased activation in the amygdala, which is associated with stress and anxiety.
Research has also shown that spending time in nature helps boost cognitive functioning generally. Participants in a study conducted by the University of Michigan shows that performance on attention and memory tests improved by 20% when participants paused to take a walk in a natural setting. No such improvement occurred when participants paused to take a walk through a busy urban environment.
Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M University investigated the effects of a green view on patients recovering from abdominal surgery. The ones had a bed with a view of trees fared much better in their recovery than those who had just a wall to look at. The ones with a green view were found to recover and heal quicker, got out of the hospital faster, had fewer post-operation complications, and had less need for anti-pain medication.
So, as you can see there is much evidence to support the notion that spending time in nature is good for us. The next step is committing – everyday if possible – to spend some time engaging with a natural setting. This doesn’t need to be in remote and ‘wild’ areas – there is plenty of nature in urban settings. It can be as simple as walking in the park or spending time in the garden. The most important thing is to use the senses to engage and really be present with the world around you allowing you to take in all the good that the natural world has to offer.