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5 Amazing Benefits of Spending Time in Nature

5 Amazing Benefits of Spending Time in Nature

Written by Jonathan Bailor, CEO SANESolution & Reviewed by Dr. Matthew Olesiak, MD Chief Medical Director, SANESolution

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If you’ve ever spent time outdoors, you know the positive effect on your mind and body. You probably felt peaceful, rejuvenated, and just plain happier than you were before you stepped outside.

This effect is not just in your imagination. Instead, research suggests there are measurable physical and mental health benefits of nature.

Here are five amazing scientifically backed benefits that will help improve your health and wellbeing.

It Can Relieve Depression

Let’s start with an issue that many people struggle with — depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 17.3 million American adults have at least one major depressive episode in a given year. This figure represents 7.1% of the U.S. adult population. (1) Additionally, the prevalence of major depression in women is higher compared to men. (2)

Research suggests that spending time in natural environments may relieve depression, though the exact reason for this effect hasn’t been established. However, spending time in nature often involves physical activity, which may be the key. After all, studies have shown that moderate-intensity exercise may relieve depression. (3) Plus, physical inactivity is associated with a depressed mood. (4)

So, if you’re feeling blue, taking a 15-20 minute walk or jog in the park might be all you need to put a smile on your face!

It May Ease Stress

Stress is a regular part of most people’s lives. Work. Finances. Family responsibilities. Social commitments. All add up to chronic stress, which can negatively affect your health — unless you take steps to relieve it.

Studies suggest that one of the best ways to reduce stress is to spend time in the natural world. In addition, being out in nature has also been shown to benefit mental health in general. The health benefits of nature are so well known that the Japanese people have started a trend called “forest bathing,” in which participants spend time in the forest.

Though researchers do not know precisely why “forest bathing” is so healthy, a study published in 2010 found that those who walked in a forest had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than their city-walking counterparts. (5) This effect could be due to the calming sounds of nature combined with the lack of technological distractions, i.e., cell phone, tablet, etc.

If you want to decrease stress further, try taking a leisurely jog in the forest. Like depression, stress can be relieved with physical activity.

But what if you don’t have time to take a stroll in the forest? Incredibly, researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England found that simply listening to natural sounds on a sound machine at home can lower heart rate and reduce stress! (6) The reason? These sounds modify connections in the brain, reducing the body’s fight-or-flight response.

Still, it’s best to visit green spaces as often as possible so that you can experience the combined health benefits of nature sounds, exercise, and fresh air.

It Can Strengthen Immunity

Having a robust immune system is crucial for defending against illness and disease. Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise are two of the most common ways to strengthen immunity. But spending time in nature can also help.

There is scientific evidence that spending time outdoors may defend against various conditions, including depression, diabetes, cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and many more. But nobody knew why nature has such a positive effect on physical and mental health until University of Illinois environment and behavior researcher Ming Kuo investigated it.

Kuo reviewed every research study he could find on this topic and discovered up to 21 possible pathways in which nature can positively impact health. (7)

For example, many plants emit antibacterial organic compounds called phytoncides that reduce blood pressure and boost immunity, among other effects. (8) Studies also show that DHEA levels increase after walking in the forest. (9) DHEA is a hormone that has been found to possess anti-obesity and anti-diabetic properties. It may also support cardiovascular function. (10)

These are just two of the many potential pathways whereby nature can affect health. It seems that spending time outside in rural settings may be one of the best ways to boost immunity and protect your health.

It May Boost Cognitive Function

Multiple clinical research studies show nature to be an excellent brain booster.

For example, in an analysis of 12 experimental studies, researchers found that interacting with nature significantly improved cognitive performance compared to interacting with urban settings. (11) They found that spending time in nature is particularly beneficial for directed attention (concentration and focus), crucial for problem-solving. Additionally, nature may also restore directed attention after fatigue. (12)

So, the next time you’re tired or stressed at work, take a break and go to the park. Based on numerous studies, there is a good chance you’ll come back to your desk refreshed, alert, and ready to tackle that big project!

 

Nature May Improve Physical Fitness

Most studies “suggest that exercise and physical activity are associated with better quality of life and health outcomes.” (13) Thus, physical fitness is crucial for optimal health.

This is likely due to an increase in physical activity that occurs in natural environments. In a 2011 observational study, researchers found an association between green space and increased physical activity levels. (14)

Another study in China showed that having green open spaces in urban areas promotes physical activity, especially for women and the aged. (15)

But whether you live in an urban or a rural setting, you can usually find a city park nearby to get regular physical activity. Your body and your health will thank you!

Written by Jonathan Bailor, CEO SANESolution & Reviewed by Dr. Matthew Olesiak, MD Chief Medical Director, SANESolution

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References

1- National Institute of Mental Health. Major Depression. NIMH. Accessed Sep 15, 2021. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression

2- National Institute of Mental Health. Major Depression. NIMH. Accessed Sep 15, 2021. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression

3- Franz SI, Hamilton GV. The effects of exercise upon retardation in conditions of depression. Am J Psychiatry. 1905;62:239–256.

4- Merikangas KR, Swendsen J, Hickie IB, Cui L, Shou H, Merikangas AK, Zhang J, Lamers F, Crainiceanu C, Volkow ND, Zipunnikov V. Real-time Mobile Monitoring of the Dynamic Associations Among Motor Activity, Energy, Mood, and Sleep in Adults With Bipolar Disorder. JAMA Psychiatry. 2018 Dec 12. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.3546.

5- Park BJ, Tsunetsugu Y, Kasetani T, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan;15(1):18-26. doi: 10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9. PMID: 19568835; PMCID: PMC2793346.

6- Gould van Praag C., Garfinkel S., Sparasci O. et al. Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Sci Rep 7, 45273 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep45273

7- Kuo M. How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in Psychology, 2015; 6 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01093.

8- Komori T., Fujiwara R., Tanida M., Nomura, J., and Yokoyama, M. M. (1995). Effects of citrus fragrance on immune function and depressive states. Neuroimmunomodulation 2, 174–180. doi: 10.1159/000096889

9- Li, Q., Otsuka, T., Kobayashi, M., Wakayama, Y., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., et al. (2011). Acute effects of walking in forest environments on cardiovascular and metabolic parameters. Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. 111, 2845–2853. doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-1918-z

10- Bjørnerem, A., Straume, B., Midtby, M., Fønnebø, V., Sundsfjord, J., Svartberg, J., et al. (2004). Endogenous sex hormones in relation to age, sex, lifestyle factors, and chronic diseases in a general population: the Tromso Study. J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 89, 6039–6047. doi: 10.1210/jc.2004-0735

11- Stenfors Cecilia U. D., Van Hedger Stephen C., Schertz Kathryn E., Meyer Francisco A. C., Smith Karen E. L., Norman Greg J., Bourrier Stefan C., Enns James T., Kardan Omid, Jonides John, Berman Marc G. Positive Effects of Nature on Cognitive Performance Across Multiple Experiments: Test Order but Not Affect Modulates the Cognitive Effects. Frontiers in Psychology. Vol 10, 2019, Pgs 1413. ISSN=1664-1078. DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01413. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01413

12- Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. J. Environ. Psychol. 15, 169–182. doi: 10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2