Most of us have experienced that sense of deep peace walking through a grassy park or a forest with shimmering leaves. Nature has a way of releasing mental and physical tension, allowing us to let it go. Afterward, we may have a more optimistic outlook or a sense of “oneness” with the world. Scientists have researched that source of calm we gain from nature, health benefits we receive as a result and specific methods we can use to recreate it in our daily lives.
Effects on the brain
In a Stanford study, participants who spent time walking in nature showed reduced neural activity to the subgenual prefrontal cortex, corresponding to feelings of relaxation or a lift in their mood. Those same participants who spent their time in the green, tree-lined portion of campus also had a generally more positive and attentive attitude than those who spent their time walking near heavy traffic. These results suggest spending time in nature can be a quick solution for how to get out of a bad mood, what to do when feeling depressed, how to get rid of negative thoughts or how to relax your mind.
Health benefits from nature
While scientists used to believe that nature merely provided oxygen for our bodies to function—the more the better—there are numerous other psychological and physical benefits nature can provide.
Researchers published a summary of scientific data from the last 30 years in the Oxford Journal to examine the minimum dose people require to receive certain health benefits of nature. Among their findings: People may be more likely to exercise near natural surroundings, thereby reducing illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and mental illness.
But not all of the benefits were linked to studies where participants exercised. Simply spending time in nature can also reduce blood pressure and lower stress. Doses of nature have created an overall decrease in mortality rates, faster healing, better perception of overall health, fewer respiratory illnesses and allergies, and improved self-esteem, cognition and social cohesion.
Moreover, the Oxford Journal report indicated many of these benefits may be achieved with very low durations of exposure to nature—as few as five to ten minutes in some cases.
Specific methods deliver results
Following the conclusive research on nature’s ability to improve quality of life and longevity, more studies have explored the precise methods for achieving specific results. The theme of the research continues to indicate that a little more nature can go a long way toward making lives better.
A Toronto study attempted to quantify whether adding trees to front yards in suburban neighborhoods would increase feelings of good health.
Researchers conclude, “We find that having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger.”
In other words, these positive feelings of better perception of overall health, vigor, cognition and lower stress improve simply by planting 10 visible trees per city block.
When organizing their study, the Toronto study relied on background data from other research indicating that adding views of trees from a hospital beds could increase recovery time and views from home windows could reduce crime or aggression.
Companies around the world are capitalizing on the research surrounding nature’s benefits for their employees—particularly through the use of green roofs, city rooftops designed to create nature-scapes with grass or other plant coverings. For example, Facebook’s Silicon Valley campus now sports a 9 acre green roof. New laws in France require all roofs to be covered in greenery or solar panels. Researchers at the University of Melbourne have even created computer-generated images of green-roofs as “micro-breaks” to create more efficiency for workers.
Based on the wealth of research, the benefits of nature—both physical and psychological—are undeniable. Whether we are city-dwellers or are most at-home in the rich outdoors, the need for contact with the natural world is a part of healing our bodies and minds. Despite the ever-growing technology in this area to develop computer generated opportunities to simulate contact with an actual tree, pond or blade of grass, whenever possible get out and breathe in the sights, sounds and smells of the real thing. As the data in this area indicates, it’s often the simplest things that make a big impact on our health.