What Exactly Are the Health Benefits of Spending Time in Nature?
From anecdotes to brain studies, everything points to and highlights the benefits of actively interacting with the natural world. In fact, a recent study published in Nature, found that people who lived in tree-dense areas reported "better health perception and markedly better mental health" based on a survey of 31,109 individuals living in Greater Toronto.
A recent review of research from 20 countries and based on 290 million people has confirmed what we have always known intuitively about the positive effect of nature. The report published by the University of East Anglia found that "time in, or living close to nature" reduced Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress and high blood pressure.
This ties up neatly with the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that humans have biological and psychological needs to connect with nature on an evolutionary level.
Scientifically proven benefits of nature on the human psyche
1. Nature improves mental health
The restorative powers of nature are well known. In this study a group of healthy male University students were assessed following a two day stay at a forest retreat. The study found that this group showed significantly lower oxidative stress and reduced levels of the stress hormone known as cortisol.
Moreover, actively interacting with nature was found to improve mental health in a recent Stanford study. Participants who went on a 90-minute walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of "rumination and reduction in neural activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain" relative to participants who walked through an urban environment.
2. Interaction with nature improves attention and concentration
Engaging with nature, even briefly, can have a positive effect on our focus and concentration abilities. Every day we are challenged to multi-task whether at work, at home or when we are using technology. Multitasking under increasing demands can seriously affect our capacity to direct attention. Studies show that as little as 20 minutes in nature can do wonders for improving our concentration levels. The attentional effects of nature are so robust that children with ADHD showed improved performance on set tasks after a short walk in the park. In another study simply viewing photos of natural scenes improved concentration and focus in participants.
3. Nature reduces inflammation and may have anti-cancer benefits
Increased inflammation is associated with varying degrees of health problems such as depression, cancer, and autoimmune disorders. Numerous studies report "time in nature" in particular forests showed signs of reduced inflammation in participants. Preliminary studies also suggest that spending time in forests may stimulate the production of anti-cancer proteins and significantly boost your immune system.
4. Nature improves vision
An Australian study which followed 2000 school children for two years found that children who spent more time outdoors had lower prevalence of myopia (nearsightedness).
5. Nature helps foster empathy in children
Empathy is a complex emotion to develop, but this humane trait is a valuable life skill. It enables us to become better human beings and respond with compassion to the needs of others.
Research suggests that direct and prolonged interaction with nature, including its creatures, makes children empathetic because they deem natural elements like plants and animals worthy of their moral consideration. It also fosters conservation habits in growing children as they connect with the magnanimity of nature and learn about the role of nature in sustaining our demands as an species.
The connection with nature may be explained by studies that used fMRI (brain scan) to measure brain activity. When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when participants viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated.
The urban environment, as well as perceived lack of time, often means that we don’t prioritise "time in nature". There are many physical and mental health benefits associated with increased time outdoors. With Spring weather already here why not take this opportunity to explore your neighbourhood and make time to visit our National Parks. Remember, if you're feeling stressed and low in mood head for the trees to replenish your mind!
What’s your favourite way of engaging with nature?