We intuitively know (although we may have forgotten) that spending time outside in natural areas makes us feel good, reduces our stress levels, and is a great way of exercising and socialising.
This knowledge is now backed up by a growing body of research, which strongly suggests that interacting with nature has a wide range of health benefits; not just psychological, but also physical, cognitive and social.
Here are just a few of the reported benefits:
- Reduced mortality from all causes 1-3
- Reduced risk of suffering from certain illnesses 4
- Stress reduction 5
- Improved mood and self esteem 6, 7
- Improved short term memory8
- Increased creative problem solving ability9
- Reduced inflammatory markers 10
- Increased expression of anti-cancer proteins 11
- Reduced symptoms in people with mental health problems 12
- Reduced symptoms in children with ADHD 13
- Reduced health inequality 14
Impressive, but why do we need scientific evidence to confirm what we’ve intuitively known for centuries: that spending time outside is good for us?
Well sadly, our sedentary, indoor lifestyles and our increasing disconnection with nature means that such studies are now assuming great importance, in order to help reshape public health policy, urban planning and architectural design. They also serve to remind each of us individually that being in nature is essential for our health and not an optional extra.
Yes, many of the studies referenced above have some limitations, and suggest a correlation rather than causation. Important questions remain to be answered, such as:
- What exactly constitutes “nature exposure”?
- What are the doses required to achieve the various health benefits?
- Is there an optimal frequency and duration?
Nevertheless, there’s an overwhelming trend towards a positive association between interaction with nature and beneficial health outcomes.
And prescribing more nature to people is not the same as exposing them to a drug with potentially harmful side effects. It’s hard to think of many downsides to increasing our time spent in nature. It’s also free. I’ll await the results of future studies with interest, but in the meantime, I’m off outside.
But even for those of us who love the outdoors, the reality is that there can be numerous barriers to getting outside on a regular basis: our work, the weather, family responsibilities, lack of access, maybe even fear.
So how can we make sure that we get a regular dose of nature?
Check out this post for some tips and suggestions.
- Crouse DL, Pinault L, Balram A, Hystad P, Peters PA, Chen H, et al. Urban greenness and mortality in Canada’s largest cities: a national cohort study. The Lancet Planetary Health. 2017;1(7):e289-e97.
- Gascon M, Triguero-Mas M, Martínez D, Dadvand P, Rojas-Rueda D, Plasència A, et al. Residential green spaces and mortality: A systematic review. Environment International. 2016;86:60-7.
- James P, Hart Jaime E, Banay Rachel F, Laden F. Exposure to Greenness and Mortality in a Nationwide Prospective Cohort Study of Women. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2016;124(9):1344-52.
- Maas J, Verheij RA, de Vries S, Spreeuwenberg P, Schellevis FG, Groenewegen PP. Morbidity is related to a green living environment. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2009;63(12):967.
- 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. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. 2010;15(1):18-26.
- Barton J, Pretty J. What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environmental Science & Technology. 2010;44(10):3947-55.
- Pretty J, Peacock J, Sellens M, Griffin M. The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise. International Journal of Environmental Health Research. 2005;15(5):319-37.
- Berman MG, Jonides J, Kaplan S. The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Psychological Science. 2008;19(12):1207-12.
- Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P. Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLOS ONE. 2012;7(12):e51474.
- Mao G-X, Cao Y-B, Lan X-G, He Z-H, Chen Z-M, Wang Y-Z, et al. Therapeutic effect of forest bathing on human hypertension in the elderly. Journal of Cardiology. 2012;60(6):495-502.
- Li Q, Morimoto K, Kobayashi M, Inagaki H, Katsumata M, Hirata Y, et al. Visiting a Forest, but Not a City, Increases Human Natural Killer Activity and Expression of Anti-Cancer Proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology. 2008;21(1):117-27.
- Berman MG, Kross E, Krpan KM, Askren MK, Burson A, Deldin PJ, et al. Interacting with Nature Improves Cognition and Affect for Individuals with Depression. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2012;140(3):300-5.
- Faber Taylor A, Kuo FE. Children With Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park. Journal of Attention Disorders. 2009;12(5):402-9.
- Mitchell R, Popham F. Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study. The Lancet.372(9650):1655-60.
Some further reading:
- The Nature Fix: why nature makes us happier healthier and more creative by Florence Williams
- The Nature Principle: human restoration and the end of nature deficit disorder by Richard Louv