The experience of nature may elude you if you work a desk job. You might gaze out the window and get a glimpse, but only for a brief snapshot in time. It’s a far different experience to step outside into a green space or forest and feel the gentle wind, smell the almost pristine air, and listen to the birds sing. Nature calls, but we can’t always answer. The good news? It doesn’t take a lot of nature exposure to get health benefits. Spending only 20 minutes per day outdoors can affect your health in a positive way.
Greater Sense of Well-Being
One of the greatest health benefits of being outdoors in nature is the way it relieves stress and improves our sense of well-being. Plus, studies show that spending time in green spaces or other areas where nature flourishes lowers the stress hormone cortisol, a hormone that if it stays up contributes to weight gain, suppresses the immune system, and triggers bone loss. Studies show that spending time in a natural environment has several mental and physical health benefits. Nature time may not take away what is stressing you out, but it gives you a break from it and lessens your body’s reaction to it.
The sights and sounds of nature are a gentle distraction from what ails you. Studies even show that people who look at photographs of nature experience a greater sense of well-being. Because of studies showing that nature enhances well-being, a new field of psychology called ecopsychology is emerging. This field focuses on the interaction between humans and nature and how it affects mental health.
Nature is Heart Healthy
Studies show that walking outdoors and even sitting in a green environment reduces heart rate and blood pressure. It seems to do this by calming the sympathetic or “fight or flight” nervous system that prepares an individual to fight or run away. When your sympathetic nervous system fires up, your heart rate rises, along with your blood pressure. Ongoing activation of this component of the nervous system is harmful to heart health. That’s why stress management techniques, such as meditation or yoga, are beneficial for stress relief and the health of your heart.
Walking in a wooded area has substantial health benefits, so much so that a practice called forest bathing is growing in popularity. With forest bathing, you spend a few hours in a wooded environment and soak up the sights, sounds, and smells that surround you. To support this practice, a 2011 study found that subjects who took a 2-hour walk in the forest enjoyed a drop in the stress hormone adrenalin and noradrenaline and a drop in blood pressure.
Beneficial for Your Immune System
A healthy immune system is a key to optimal health. You depend on your immune system to shield you against viruses, bacteria, and other invaders, but a healthy immune system plays a key role in fighting cancer too. Your immune system is like a fleet of security guards protecting against intruders of all types, from infectious agents to malignancies. Yet an overactive immune system isn’t healthy either, as it leads to low-grade inflammation, a contributor to many chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Studies show that nature has a beneficial effect on immune function. In fact, walking through a wooded area can give your immune system a boost, partially because of the foliage. Trees, particularly pine trees, release natural chemicals called phytoncides. In turn, phytoncides increase the activity of natural killer cells, immune cells that fight viruses. The tranquility of nature and the phytoncides released by its foliage lowers stress hormones, including cortisol, and that improves immune function. The Japanese call walking through a wooded area “Shinrinyoku,” the equivalent of forest bathing in the United States. In Japan, residents believe walking through the forest is a natural form of aromatherapy and beneficial for the body and soul.
Relieves Pain and Aids in Healing
How many people have chronic pain in some form? More than you might think! Studies show that between 10 to 14% of the world’s population suffers from some form of chronic pain that interferes with their daily activities. Back pain and knee pain are two of the most common, but some people deal with chronic headaches, including migraines.
Spending time in nature may be therapeutic for pain too. Studies show that nature time reduces the perception of pain, improves the quality of life, and enhances mood. It’s not clear exactly what aspects of nature are responsible for relieving pain, It could be a combination of factors. When you spend time in nature, you breathe in fresh air, move your body, breathe in phytoncides, and soak up the beautiful scenery. It’s a reboot for the body and mind!
The Bottom Line
Don’t underestimate the power of nature to transform your health! Try to get outside and enjoy it! How about a walk outdoors before work or a long hike on the weekend? A relaxing walk in the woods is an excellent way to spend a rest day away from structured exercise too. One caveat: Put away your smartphone and other technology so you can get the full experience. Take it slow too! Don’t see it as an exercise session but as a respite from daily life.
- University of Minnesota. “How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing?”
- University of Minnesota. “What is Happening in Healthcare Settings Today?”
- com. “Just 30 Minutes of Nature a Week Could Reduce Your Risk of Depression And Heart Disease”
- Environ Sci Technol. 2013 Jun 4; 47(11): 5562–5569.Published online 2013 Apr 16. doi: 10.1021/es305019p.
- Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan; 15(1): 9–17. Published online 2009 Mar 25. doi: 10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3
- A Review of Field Experiments on the Effect of Forest Bathing on Anxiety and Heart Rate Variability. Marc R Farrow PT, Kyle Washburn, RN, BSN, CENFirst Published May 16, 2019 Research Article. https://doi.org/10.1177/2164956119848654.
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Nov;111(11):2845-53. doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-1918-z. Epub 2011 Mar 23.
- com. “Immune system may be pathway between nature and good health”