Hunkered down in our homes, doing the right thing, trying to not only not get infected ourselves, but also not to infect others, possibly more vulnerable than we are – let’s not forget to do everything in our power to keep our bodies in top shape and our sanity preserved.
Getting out into nature, while keeping social distancing in place, might be just the answer. Let’s talk about some key benefits of spending time outdoors.
Love of Nature
I grew up in simpler times and a simpler place. For me as a kid, my birth country of Poland was a wonderful place full of enchanted forests and city parks, summer camps and visiting the countryside. The communist regime was terrible on many accounts (persecution of dissidents, lack of personal freedoms and basic human rights), but it was also in certain respect taking a decent care of its citizens.
While a good portion of the population people worked in mines and factories with less then optimal air quality, the regime ensured several weeks of paid vacation, free or discounted stays in sea and mountain resorts, and visits to sanitariums and medical spas in forested areas for those who needed them, free of charge. For us kids, there were three or four weeks of free-of-cost summer camp, being somewhere in the woods and living the camp life. People had less cars, so Sundays meant going for long walks to parks or onto fields at the outskirts of town.
Whoever could afford it, would invest in a tiny cottage or even just a garden shag away from the city on one of the communal (or, more rarely, private) lots. People would garden there or just spend some relaxing time off work in the presence of nature and one another. In effect, it’s fair to say that for the first 18 years of my life, I have spent about a fourth of my time in nature in one way or another.
Also later, during the most trying time in my life, when I was sick with cancer, venture daily for a long walk or hike if my health condition allowed it. At the least, I would spend long hours in my California backyard surrounded by trees, bushes and flowers and the sound of buzzing insects.
Nature helps us is so many ways: It keeps us healthy; it can make us stronger; it lets us recharge our batteries, it lets us unwind and unplug, and it restores our mental balance.
We need contact with nature now more than ever. This current Corona Virus crisis calls for social distancing, but we can still find room for encounters with the natural environment.
Key Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
When we stay in contact with nature –be it untouched wilderness or a backyard tree–we do our physical and mental wellbeing a huge favor. In fact, studies show spending time in the green outdoors can not only boost our mood, but also improves how our many health systems function: the nervous, the endocrine, and the immune systems especially. This is true for people of all ages and all fitness levels. Even just sitting still and looking at an object of nature in its natural environment can have tremendous benefits for overall wellbeing of everyone.
Bodies in Nature
Being able to get out the doors can motivate people to be more active physically, which is fundamental to offset illness and disability.
1. Increased Energy Level
Spending time outside makes us feel energetic and alive, it can help raise one’s self-esteem, and can be a cure for boredom. So, unplug, get out and get moving.
2. Reduced Inflammation
Inflammation is a natural process within the body in response to threats. However, if it gets out of check, it can lead to chronic illness such as asthma, diabetes, IBD, and even cancer.
Getting out of doors can help reduce chronic inflammation. In one study, elderly participants were asked for one week to spend time in a forest setting. Upon their return, their markers of inflammation were significantly reduced along with an indication that the contact with nature had a positive effect on their hypertension.
3. Improved Immunity
Research shows that spending time in nature provides protections against a range of diseases. However, it has been a mystery for a long on exactly how nature is able to bring about such improvements in human health. After reviewing hundreds of studies examining nature's effects on health, one environment and behavior researcher suggests that spending time in green spaces can enhance the functioning of the body's immune system, which then leads to better resilience and ability to fight off disease.
“One way to understand this relationship between nature, health, and the immune system, Kuo explains, is that exposure to nature switches the body into "rest and digest" mode, which is the opposite of the "fight or flight" mode. When the body is in "fight or flight" mode, it shuts down everything that is immediately nonessential, including the immune system.”
In the Nature study of 20,000 people, a team led by Mathew White of the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter, found that people who spent two hours a week in natural environments exhibited significantly better health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. Two hours per week – all at once or spaced over several visits – was necessary, there were no benefits for people who didn’t meet that threshold.
“A growing body of epidemiological evidence indicates that greater exposure to, or ‘contact with’, natural environments (such as parks, woodlands and beaches) is associated with better health and well-being, at least among populations in high income, largely urbanized, societies.”
Proven Benefits for Your Mind and Spirit
Spending good amount of time outdoors, in green spaces, whether in the wilderness or in urban parks or backyards, has a great impact on our mental well-being as well.
4. Stress Reduction
Stress reduction is one of the most researched and acknowledged benefits of being in nature. Even only looking at scenes of nature can reduce feeling of fear, anger and stress, according to this University of Minnesota study.
“In one study in Mind, 95% of those interviewed said their mood improved after spending time outside, changing from depressed, stressed, and anxious to more calm and balanced.”
5. Better Mood
A study, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, found that even spending as little as five minutes in nature was associated with a significant mood boost.
6. Improved Memory
Spending time or even only looking at nature is linked to improved short-term and working memory. In fact, one study suggested that walking in nature could improve your short-term memory by a whooping 20%.
The results showed that people’s performance on the (memory) test improved by almost 20% after wandering amongst the trees. By comparison those subjected to a busy street did not reliably improve on the test.
7. Relief from Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues or disorders may be eased by some time in the great outdoors – especially when it is combined with exercise.
More than half of the world’s population lives in urban settings, and that is forecast to rise to 70 percent within a few decades. Just as urbanization and disconnection from nature have grown dramatically, so have mental disorders such as depression.
A team of researchers from Stanford University found that study participants who walked for 90 minutes through a green campus space, versus strolling next to a loud highway, dwelled less on the negative aspects of their lives and exhibited generally more “quiet minds.” Moreover, these participants exhibited decreased activity in the specific area of the brain associated with depression. The study concluded that spending some time in nature was linked to a significant positive effect on overall mood and mental wellbeing.
Nature Love Across Cultures
Different countries and cultures have different ideas about whether and how to optimize their time in nature. Generally though, there is a consensus on the benefits form spending time outdoors. But the policies on helping people achieve the goal of being in nature vary from country to country.
In some countries, spending time in natural environments have become the stable of medical care, doctors are literally prescribing “nature” to their patients in hope of improved physical and mental outcomes.
In other countries, being in nature has been engrained into the national culture. These are usually also the countries that tend to have more sound environmental policies and that exhibit more general “respect” for the natural, wild environment and the need to protect it for our and future generations.
Example #1 Japan and Forest Bathing
Walking and spending time in the green, known as shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a popular form of commonly applied, preventive health care in Japan. The term was first coined in the 1980s, but is now attracting increasing attention around the world. Yoshifumi Miyazaki from Chiba University, Japan, discovered that going for a 40-minute walk in a cedar forest lowers the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, more than a similar 40-minute walk indoors in a lab. According to Doctor Miyazaki, by ameliorating our stress, we can recover our immune strength and develop bodies that will be much more resilient against illness.
“Although human beings and their direct ancestors have existed for approximately 7 million years, we have spent over 99.99 percent of that time living in nature. Our genes are adapted to nature, and they have not changed over the two or three centuries since the industrial revolution. Because we have bodies that are adapted to nature, living in modern society places us in a condition of stress.” Yoshifumi Miyazaki
Furthermore, Japanese researchers suggest that aerosols from the forests, inhaled during a walk, can be linked to elevated levels of Natural Killer or NK cells in the immune system, which fight tumors and infections.
Example #2 Scandinavia
Friluftsliv (“open air life”) concept calls for a connection with nature that has become part of cultural heritage in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. It means, for instance, a good amount of time spent in nature during school day for kids. School children in Nordic countries play outdoors (and not on concrete school backyards) and explore all signs of nature around them, like worms and insects or a bird’s nest.
“The expression Friluftsliv literally translates as “open-air life” and was popularized in the 1850s by the Norwegian playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen, who used the term to describe the value of spending time in remote locations for spiritual and physical wellbeing.”
In Sweden, nearly everyone who lives in a city on regular basis, will also have a summer cottage or tiny house, where they can spend time in close proximity to nature during the warmer months of the year. In this highly modern country of 10 million people, there are 25 non-profit associations anchored to friluftsliv, with 1.7 million memberships spread across thousands of local and regional clubs.
Example #3 Germany
Throughout history, Germans have had a fascination and deep love of forests and trees. The bountiful nature and the beauty of the environment of the German-speaking territory -think the majestic Alps, the fairytale-like Black Forest, the glorious meadows and heather fields of Lüneburger Heide, or the white, quiet beaches of the Baltic Sea – have inspired countless writers, poets, and visual artists.
When the national forests in Germany began to decline in the 1970s and 1980s, it sparked one of the most effective environmentalist movements in the world. The Green Party which grew out of this movement has been part of the political scene in Germany ever since and has managed to influence sound policies geared toward preserving the natural environment in Germany and the world and combatting the climate change.
You might have heard the word Wanderlust (“the joy of and desire for walking”), which has pretty much become part of the English language by now. There is another, closely related word in German,Wandervogel, which can be translated as "rambling, hiking, or wandering bird." Wandervogel was also a youth movement started in the late 1800s by young people who wanted to free themselves from the confines of society and return to the freedom of nature. Since the mid-20th century, the movement has been experiencing a renaissance and has several thousand members across Germany today. And so, the idea lives on.
Simple Steps to Get Closer to Nature
A growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on our health, both physical and mental. And vice versa, lack of such contact, can have tremendously detrimental effects for our bodies and psyche.
In the USA, there is not much in terms of policy that would encourage people to spend time outdoors. There is rarely paid vacation, there is no paid medical spas or sanitariums located in nature, nature camps and retreats for kids and adults alike are available only for those who can pay their way, and it is not cheap, by all means.
This doesn’t mean that Americans are blind to the need for contact with nature. Richard Louv, whose books Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, started a national discussion about the importance of nature in children’s and adults’ lives, even coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe the growing epidemic of chronic disease and obesity amongst Americans. Louv sees the cause for these ills, at least partially, in the overly sedentary, in-door lifestyle of the majority of Americans, and their lack of meaningful connection with natural environment.
Even without concerted policies and/or workplace or governmental fostering of “forest bathing” or “Wanderlust”, we can do a lot as individuals toward reducing stress and promoting healing by just spending several hours per week in a natural environment outdoors. Even at the current time of crisis, when the encroaching Corona Virus calls for social distancing and partial or total lockdowns at homes, we can still spend time outdoors:
Drive out to the closest “wilderness” that is accessible to public (don’t encroach on the wildlife!)
Go for a hike
Play frisbee or ball with the family on the local green
Take a stroll in the park
Take your morning coffee or afternoon tea in your backyard, unplug and look at the greenery around you
Pack a picnic for the family and eat in a park or your own backyard
Take a yoga mat outdoors
Play a board game on a blanket outside rather than on your couch
Walk around your urban block and focus on trees, shrubs and flower beds you encounter on the way
Garden, garden, garden! You’ll avoid some of the trips to the crowded supermarket and you’ll get your dose of sunshine and nature at the same time.
On the societal level, we can only hope that policymakers and healthcare providers everywhere around the world will consider the benefits of nature for human health and implement strategies to include contact with natural environment as prescription for good overall health. We need concrete steps to preserve out environment so it can serve us and the future generations. This is where policy can play the biggest role.
In the meantime, we as individuals can also take some lessons from the Japanese and the Nordic people: slow the pace of life, mitigate the rat race of urban environment, think beyond the capitalist net-gain mentality, and improve our health and mood by spending more time playing, exploring, or just being in, the Mother Nature.