One thing I know for sure is that a bit of time outdoors seems to help me enormously, and it’s definitely a headspace thing, so that’s to say ‘It makes me feel better’! But what I’ve come to realise is that it’s also a hormone thing. Our hormones are very much affected by our environment and so just getting out for even 30 minutes has a very significant impact on your biochemistry. I’ve called it my Vitamin N for nature.
Whether you’re a walker like me, or you prefer to go hiking, swimming or cycling all of these provide physical benefits. No matter what the activity or where you live – can have a huge impact on your overall wellbeing? In this article I have gathered some expert insights and tips to help you reap the benefits of health-building nature experiences.
Many of us spent far too much time indoors, in front of a screen or other electronic devices. To offset this many health experts say getting outdoors and into nature – can reduce stress, anxiety and insomnia, boost energy and revitalise health. And there is a growing body of research links exposure to nature with therapeutic benefits. For example, researcher at University of Michigan recently examined the effects of experiences in nature. “We’ve known for decades that being in the presence of nature has a positive effect on people, but it was unclear how much exposure to nature was needed or what constituted a health-building nature experience, says the study leader. Mary Carol Hunter, an associate professor at the university school of Environment and sustainability.
During the eight-week study, participants spent at least 10 minutes, three times a week, connecting with nature in some way, such as listening to birds from a deck or balcony, sitting under a tree or walking a park trail. Saliva tests were analysed for cortisol-the body’s stress hormone- before and after the nature experience. Published in Frontiers in Psychology, Hunter’s work showed that a 20-minute “nature pill” provided the most reduction in stress hormones. Other research confirms that any exposure to nature is good for you. For example, a 2019 study in Scientific Reports revealed that spending two hours a week in nature promotes good physical and mental health, no matter what outdoor activity you do. Another 2019 study, in Denmark, showed that adolescents who didn’t spend time in green space were up to 55% more likely to develop depression and anxiety later in life. Even time spent looking at green space through a window is beneficial, according to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
A prescription for parks
The back-to-nature movement has been gaining worldwide momentum since 2013, when a conservation programme organised by the National Trust partnered with recreation and health care communities to promote parks for improving mental and physical health. Today, we have seen numerous local parks set up similar schemes to get the local community involved to harness the power of nature to reduce chronic disease and depression. Furthermore, the BMA are also encouraging more and more GP’s to prescribe getting out and getting active to reduce chronic diseases, anxiety and depression amongst patients.
For me, it’s a no-brainer, patients with chronic disease or risk factors, you should consider a nature prescription as part of your tool- kit. You have an improvement in mental health outcomes, increased focus and concentration, a decrease in behavioural problems in children, improved diabetic outcomes and a decrease in blood pressure. Furthermore, it is well documented that outdoors you’re more likely to move, and physical inactivity is an independent risk factor for poor health. I think more and more GP’s should refrain from pulling out their prescription pad as a de facto solution. Instead of prescribing medication, put together a custom-designed plan to soak up some nature giving vitamin N, or at the very least form part of a solution. I think our bodies and minds are geared to be out-doors, and an absence of that in our lives leads to most people saying they don’t feel well. However, I add a caveat to my view, one size does not fit all. Not everybody can walk for 20 minutes every day. If you have to start with opening a window, or looking out of a window onto a tree, or you have a tiny balcony with a plant on it and you’re doing small chair exercise that’s OK, it’s a start and that’s what matters.
Life is about experiences
We live for experiences and creating a beneficial relationship with nature is more about moments than minutes. Professor Miles Richardson from the University of Derby says feels that “our relationship with nature matters greatly” Richardson leads the ‘Nature Connectedness Research Group’, which studies people’s understanding of and connection with nature. His research -which he shares on his blog, Findingnature.org.uk, focuses on the five pathways to nature connectedness: contact, emotion, beauty, meaning and compassion. “The five pathways are the types of activity you should do to build a closer relationship with nature,” he says. “It’s simply pausing for a moment to notice nature, to hear a robin singing or notice the complexity of a cobweb.
That’s a moment to think of the beauty you see and use all the senses to enjoy the joy and calm that nature can bring.” Richardson’s team has worked with nature conservation organisations in the UK, including the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts, helping them incorporate this research into resources and public awareness campaigns and a 30 Days Wild nature challenge. One new study from Forest Research revealed that visiting the UK’s woodlands not only boosts mental health but also saves €185 million in mental health treatment costs annually. “We’ve found, through noticing the good things in nature, clinically significant improvements in mental health that are sustained for a month,” says Richardson. “So if you can help people keep well by managing their emotions or feeling a little better through engaging with nature, it is going to save money in the end!’
6 things to take-away:
- Time in nature decreases anxiety and negative thinking, it can lower stress and depression.
- Outdoor activities improves both physical & mental wellbeing
- Time in nature helps to decrease high blood pressure
- Diabetics who spend more time in nature are more physically active and show better blood sugar control.
- Time in nature is associated with better cognitive development in school children.
- The closer you are to green space, the less you suffer from cardiovascular, Musculo-skeletal, mental health, respiratory, neurological and digestive diseases.
Links to organisations:
These organisations will help you explore the many benefits of being outside:
- The Wildlife Trusts (wildlife trusts.org/nature-health- and-wild-wellbeing) offers a list of resources to explore nature for wellbeing.
- The National Trust and the University of Derby created Nature and Me (derby.ac.uk/news; search “Nature connectedness”), with suggestions on how people can improve their relation- ship with nature.
- 50 Things to Do Before You are 11¾ (nationaltrust.org.uk/50-things-to-do) promotes programmes that connect kids to nature.
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Kumud Gandhi is a Nutritional Food Scientist bestselling Author, Broadcaster, and Keynote Speaker on the subject of nutritional health for productivity & performance in the workplace. In 2010 Kumud founded ‘The Cooking Academy’ a cookery school that focusses on cooking for nutritional health and wellbeing. Kumud regularly presents to international audiences on a variety of topics such as ‘Eating for Immunity and a Lifetime of Wellness’. She is an expert in the field of Wellness in the Workplace and works with organizations to create transformational change in employee health & well-being through nutrition and health coaching.