It seems so obvious that we often forget it: being out in nature is really good for us! From the warm sun on our skin at the beach to the relaxing cool air of a forest walk, getting out into nature is an important component of a healthy lifestyle. So many people are busy with work or school or taking care of things at home that they don’t think about how healing the natural world around them can actually be. But there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that being outside should be included in a regular health maintenance plan.
The health benefits of spending time in nature are substantial. Some of these benefits relate to our physical health, as shown in studies demonstrating time outside has direct impacts on health measures such as blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.1,2
A large part of these benefits has to do with the physical activities that happen in green spaces, such as walking, hiking, team sports, and more.
We know that the closer people live to a green space like a park, the more likely they are to be physically active and healthier.
Han B, Cohen DA, Derose KP, Marsh T, Williamson S, Raaen L. How much neighborhood parks contribute to local residents’ physical activity in the City of Los Angeles: A meta-analysis. Prev Med (Baltim).
However, studies also show that these health benefits exist even when adjusting for the positive effects of exercise. This means having access to nearby green space is important for people to be physically active, but there are additional reasons why spending time in nature is good for our health.
One of the most studied reasons for a time in nature benefit is its impact on stress. As anyone who has ever ended a busy day with a long walk knows, escaping to a natural setting can be very therapeutic. The sights, sounds, and smells of nature produce an automatic relaxing effect on both body and mind. This influences blood pressure and heart rate, as well as hormonal biomarkers of stress like salivary cortisol and the biofeedback measure known as heart rate variability that ultimately impact blood sugar and cholesterol.1 Multiple studies have shown that spending time in nature significantly reduces these measures of stress to a degree that may actually be saving people’s lives.5,6
Of course, stress doesn’t just influence our physical health, but also our mental health. Time in and around nature is an excellent remedy for stress.
This is in contrast to emerging evidence about the modern digital screen which evidence shows has the opposite effect especially in children.7
Getting outside on a regular basis can also significantly improve concentration, memory, and attention, and reduces symptoms of ADHD.8,9 In addition, being in nature results in significant improvements in mood, both increasing positive emotions like happiness and joy and decreasing negative moods and depression.10–12 Spending time outside can be a great boost to mental health and overall mental well-being in both adults and children.13,14
All of these physical and mental benefits of connecting with nature are thought to be the result of evolutionary adaptations that our species developed by living in a 100% natural environment for millions of years. This theory of “Biophilia” suggests that our prehistoric ancestors evolved with an inherent affinity for the natural world because that was the environment available to them,15 similar to the rationale for the popular Paleolithic (“Paleo”) diet.
Essentially, our prehistoric ancestors were on an extended camping trip, and over time they evolved with that environment to appreciate it as “home” in mind and body. And though we may be millennia away from their “survival of the fittest” lifestyle, our default psychological and physiological responses and baseline are still set to those natural settings. This is the reason that walking in the forest or sitting around a campfire can feel so therapeutic. These experiences nourish a core experience that has been ingrained into our species for a long time.
Nature Deficient Disorder and Vitamin N
These inherent responses to nature are so much a part of our collective history that we begin to suffer when we don’t have them. At least, this is the thinking of people like the author Richard Louv, who has developed the concept of “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe the set of physical and mental diseases commonly associated with lack of outdoor time.16 Louv has also suggested that exposure to nature is so fundamental to the human experience that it should be considered a vital nutrient, “Vitamin N,” that human beings need regularly for optimal health. Many people can certainly vouch for the beneficial properties of Vitamin N for themselves when noticing how good they feel sitting on a beach or just stepping outside after a long day in the office.
After spending an hour outdoors interacting with nature, memory performance and attention spans improved by 20%.
Gernes R, Hertzberg R, MacDonell M, et al. Estimating Greenspace Exposure and Benefits for Cumulative Risk Assessment Applications and Gascon M, Triguero-Mas M, Martínez D, et al. Residential green spaces and mortality: A systematic review.
Nature and Health Programs
These healing properties of Nature have been noticed and incorporated in healthcare systems around the world. In Japan, there are designated Forest Therapy Centers, co-funded by the Ministries of Forestry and Health, where people can go to participate in the restorative practice of “forest air bathing”(shinrinyoku). This experience has demonstrated all of the health benefits mentioned above, as well as a measured increase in immune system function due to the presence of aromatherapeutic chemicals produced by the trees. 17 Meanwhile, just as this article was being written, a piece was posted about hospitals in Norway that have built recovery rooms in the deep forest, so that patients can reduce their stress and relax in a natural, non-medical setting. In the US, hospitals like the Legacy Health system in Portland, Oregon are incorporating therapeutic horticulture gardens onsite for the benefit of patients, families, and staff. And in Bethesda, Maryland the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has set aside 2 acres of woodland for veterans suffering from PTSD and other injuries to recover and heal. All these programs show the interest within the medical community to begin to utilize the healing powers of being in nature.
Of course, there doesn’t need to be a program or prescription to get out and enjoy these benefits. Any opportunity to step away from a digital screen, get outside and let nature work her magic is a good one. This is an important idea to include in a healing regimen for any of the health conditions mentioned above (and more!) It also works as part of a regular health maintenance plan to increase wellness and prevent disease before it begins. It is not only going to feel good but will be making substantial benefits to your health in mind and body. So get outside as much as you can, you’ll be glad you did!
For more from Dr. Beil on Nature Bathing and the benefits of being outdoor, please listen to this podcast from RadioMD.
Naturopathic doctors are optimally skilled to help connect health and nature. Learn more about how a licensed ND is educated and treats patients with our informative FAQ series.
Kurt Beil, ND, LAc, MPH, is a naturopathic and Chinese medicine practitioner in New York’s lower Hudson Valley region. He completed a Master’s degree in Public Health focusing on urban green space as a method of sustainable public health promotion. Dr. Beil has published original research and taught widely on the restorative and therapeutic effect of natural environments and he gets out to “walk his talk” about the healing power of Nature by hiking, camping and cross-country skiing as often as possible.
- Twohig-bennett C, Jones A. The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environ Res. 2018;166(June):628-637. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030
- Ideno Y, Hayashi K, Abe Y, et al. Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017;17(1):409. doi:10.1186/s12906-017-1912-z
- Han B, Cohen DA, Derose KP, Marsh T, Williamson S, Raaen L. How much neighborhood parks contribute to local residents’ physical activity in the City of Los Angeles: A meta-analysis. Prev Med (Baltim). 2014;69:S106-S110. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.08.033
- Thompson Coon J, Boddy K, Stein K, Whear R, Barton J, Depledge MH. Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellneing than physical activity outdoors? A systemic review. Environ Sci Technol. 2011;45:1761-1772. doi:10.1021/es102947t
- Gernes R, Hertzberg R, MacDonell M, et al. Estimating Greenspace Exposure and Benefits for Cumulative Risk Assessment Applications (Summary Report). 2016;(May 2015).
- Gascon M, Triguero-Mas M, Martínez D, et al. Residential green spaces and mortality: A systematic review. Environ Int. 2016;86:60-67. doi:10.1016/J.ENVINT.2015.10.013
- Domingues-Montanari S. Clinical and psychological effects of excessive screen time on children. J Paediatr Child Health. 2017;53(4):333-338. doi:10.1111/jpc.13462
- Stevenson MP, Schilhab T, Bentsen P. Attention Restoration Theory II: a systematic review to clarify attention processes affected by exposure to natural environments. J Toxicol Environ Heal – Part B Crit Rev. 2018;21(4). doi:10.1080/10937404.2018.1505571
- Faber Taylor A, Kuo FEM. Could exposure to everyday green spaces help treat adhd? Evidence from children’s play settings. Appl Psychol Heal Well-Being. 2011;3(3):281-303. doi:10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01052.x
- Capaldi CA, Dopko RL, Zelenski JM. The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: A meta-analysis. Front Psychol. 2014;5(AUG):1-15. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976
- McMahan EA, Estes D. The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. J Posit Psychol. 2015;9760(December):1-13. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.994224
- Lee I, Choi H, Bang KS, Kim S, Song MK, Lee B. Effects of forest therapy on depressive symptoms among adults: A systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(3). doi:10.3390/ijerph14030321
- Houlden V, Weich S, de Albuquerque JP, Jarvis S, Rees K. The relationship between greenspace and the mental wellbeing of adults: A systematic review. PLoS One. 2018;13(9). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0203000
- Vanaken G-J, Danckaerts M. Impact of Green Space Exposure on Children’s and Adolescents’ Mental Health: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(12):2668. doi:10.3390/ijerph15122668
- Wilson EO. Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1984.
- Louv R. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Press; 2005.
- Hansen MM, Jones R, Tocchini K. Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing) and nature therapy: A state-of-the-art review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(8). doi:10.3390/ijerph14080851