Now that summer is here, you might want to head to a nearby forest if you can, go for a nice hike, or visit a park/garden that is surrounded by a lot of trees and greenery.
You might already know this intuitively, but studies have consistently shown that when you spend more time out in nature, you feel more alive. Published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, past and present studies conclude that getting out and connecting with nature is better for feeling rejuvenated than reaching for your proverbial cup of coffee. The findings are very important for both mental and physical health. Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don’t just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses and particular stressors.
One of the pathways to health may be to spend more time in natural settings, as many studies note. The idea of getting out in nature to improve our spirits and therefore our physical health goes hand in hand with nature deficit disorder — the diminished use of our senses, with difficulty in attention, and higher rates of illness associated with an estrangement from nature, from the real world. Past studies have even shown that we’re even kinder towards others when we feel in-touch with the natural world around us.
Most of us can sense that taking a walk in a forest, or a nature like path is good for us. We take a break from the rush of our daily lives. We enjoy the beauty and peace of being in a natural setting. Now, research is showing that visiting a forest has real, quantifiable health benefits, both mental and physical. Even five minutes around trees, or in green spaces may improve health. This might be Mother Nature’s prescription with no negative side effects that’s also happens to be free. The health benefits of a green scene that these studies pinpoint to include:
- Boosting the immune system
- Lowering blood pressure
- Reducing stress
- Improving mood
- Increasing ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
- Accelerating recovery from surgery or illness
- Increasing energy level
- Improving sleep
Research is casting light on how spending time outdoors can actually makes us healthier in the long run. How so?
Exposure to forests boosts our immune system. While we breathe in fresh air, we breathe in phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies.
Spending time around trees and looking at trees reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and improves mood. Numerous studies show that both exercising in a nature setting, or simply sitting looking at trees reduce blood pressure, as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Looking at pictures of trees has a similar, but less dramatic, effect. Studies examining the same activities in urban, unplanted areas showed no reduction of stress-related effects. Because stress inhibits the immune system, the stress-reduction benefits of nature are further magnified with a decrease in anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue occurring both immediately, and subsequently over time.
Spending time in nature helps you focus. Our lives are busier than ever with jobs, school, and family life. Trying to focus on many activities or even a single thing for long periods of time can mentally drain us. Spending time in nature, looking at plants, water, birds and other aspects of nature gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break, allowing us to focus better and renew our ability to be patient.
In children, attention fatigue causes an inability to pay attention and control impulses. The part of the brain affected by attention fatigue (right prefrontal cortex) is also involved in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Studies show that children who spend time in natural outdoor environments have a reduction in attention fatigue and children diagnosed with ADHD show a reduction in related symptoms. Researchers are investigating the use of natural outdoor environments to supplement current approaches to managing ADHD. Such an approach has the advantages of being widely accessible, inexpensive and free of side effects.
Patients recover from surgery faster and better when they have a “green” view. Hospital patients may be stressed from a variety of factors, including pain, fear, and a disruption of normal routine, all factors that can potentially harm one’s immune system. Research found that patients with “green” views had shorter postoperative stays, took fewer painkillers, and had slightly fewer postsurgical complications compared to those who had no view or a view of a cement wall.
So, when your energy is flagging and your mood is down, head outside and connect with nature and the trees around you starting this summer. You might discover that panacea is what you needed all along to breathe life right back into you.