“In short, the brain evolved in a biocentric world.”Edward O. Wilson
The Science Part
Nature has an intrinsic and almost immediate effect on our minds and bodies. This has long been the view of yogis, hikers, and hippies. Now scientific evidence is being brought forward that supports them. Investigations into concepts such as Forest Therapy are well underway in various countries including, the UK, USA, Canada, Japan, and Finland – and the results are promising. Finland, for example, is consistently in the top-ranked countries for happiness and 96% of its inhabitants participate in outdoor activities regularly (i.e. 2-3 times a week). Coincidence? Perhaps not – recent research has found that people who live near green spaces such as parks are healthier than their nature-less counterparts even if they didn’t necessarily exercise in them. On top of that, the addition of exercise to time in nature increases the health gains even more.
Anecdotally, people have said that ‘when you stand in the forest and look up at the trees, your own problems seem small’ (Seppo Uski), and ‘everything feels stripped away and none of the external things matter. This is a great part of its brilliance. […] I also notice that the silence up there on the [mountain] peak makes me feel peaceful inside.” (Florence Williams).
In more specific terms studies have found that something as little as a 15-minute walk in the woods can help lower stress levels and blood pressure, as well as relaxing tense muscles. Data also suggests that time in nature can help in the prevention of certain diseases, the maintenance of working capacity, and treating the symptoms of mild depression and fatigue or burnout. One study found that just having a view of trees, as opposed to a brick wall, out of their hospital room window correlated with gallbladder surgery patients needing fewer post-op days in the hospital, requesting less pain medication, and nurse-reported better attitudes.
As of 2008 the majority of humans live in cities and are more disconnected from nature than ever. Medical reviews show that people who live in cities have a 39% increase in mood disorders, a 21% increase in anxiety disorders, double the risk of developing schizophrenia, and lower levels of optimism. This may be because urban living is associated with increased activity in the amygdala, where fear, anxiety, and anger are processed.
So, with all this in mind, how the heck do we actually bring more nature into our lives?
The Practical Part
Incorporating nature into our lives can actually be quite simple once we get into the habit of making it a priority for our health. 5 hours a month is thought to be enough to offset much of the damage of our increasingly indoor lives and alleviate mild depression and fatigue, amongst other problems. Here are some ideas to get you started on your journey to nature-based health.
Try taking a short walk in a nearby park on your lunch break. Research shows that as little as a 15-minute walk in a green space can make a significant difference to mood and energy levels as well as stimulating your circulation and revving up metabolism.
Try to engage as many of your senses as possible – look at the trees/flowers/grass around you; smell the flowers and earth; listen to the leaves rustling and birds singing; touch the bark of an old (or new) tree; taste the oils in the air or bring some fruit to eat on your walk.
Find a spot as far away from human noise sources like roads as you can, in which to wander or sit and rest. Manmade environmental noise decreases HRV (heartrate variability) – low HRV is linked to stress, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, and early death. It also deters alpha brainwaves (which are a signal of calmness).
However, if you only have access to somewhere that you can still hear traffic noises, like a city park, you can still reap a lot of benefits from spending time there.
You can increase the benefits of your time in nature by leaving your phone behind and having a mini digital detox (constant tech use causes bad posture, vision deterioration, finger pain, and attentional fatigue) and/or by combining it with exercise such as jogging, brisk walking, hiking, yoga, or an outdoor training circuit. In this way, you will enjoy the individual benefits of each activity as well as breathing deeper and inhaling more beneficial phytocides.
If you can’t get outside don’t despair. Research has found that having a view of nature out of a window in beneficial and watching nature videos helps our heartrates to return to normal after a stressful event (doctor’s appointment anyone?!). Even nature images on a screen or poster can provoke positive reactions in our brains surprisingly quickly. Listening to natural sounds like birdsong and water are also soothing and restoring.
Why not bring nature into your home? You can do this by investing in easy to care for houseplants (be sure they are non-toxic if you have pets), an essential oil diffuser to suffuse the air with the oils of flowers, trees or herbs. Scented candles also work well (get soy-based if you can). You could keep a mini herb or veggie garden in a window box. With a little imagination, the possibilities are endless!