Inner Adventure Guide

Benefits of spending time in nature

Liz Barile-Page is your Inner Adventure Guide
Many of us have experienced the great sense of rejuvenation that comes from walking through the countryside. A growing number of studies have shown that green spaces are linked to greater well-being.
1. Improved Mental Health

Many of us have experienced the great sense of rejuvenation that comes from walking through the countryside. A growing number of studies have shown that green spaces are linked to greater well-being. For example, a large survey conducted in the UK reported that people living in greener urban areas have fewer symptoms of psychological distress (depression, anxiety, etc.) than those less green. In the USA, a study followed 2000 people living in urban areas over a two-year period; results showed that those who moved to greener urban areas experienced significant improvement in mental health that lasted for at least 3 years after they moved. These results are not affected by income, education, individual personality traits, marital status, or previous history of mental disorders, so it is unlikely that reverse causality can explain the effects observed. So what is it about nature that is so beneficial to mental health?

Increased social contact. Some green exercise studies (see the exercise section) have shown increases in social interaction and decreases in loneliness following activities in nature. This is important as strong social support is known to have positive effects on mental well-being. Finally, it has been suggested that the characteristic of nature stimuli to be fascinating and attention-grabbing can aid those suffering from depression by reducing rumination, a maladaptive pattern of thought.

Reduced stress. There are a number of ways in which nature can help to reduce stress. Firstly, it provides opportunities for relaxation and recuperation. Time spent in nature can lead to a reduction in the pressures of work, and the opportunity to restore mental fatigue. Nature is also thought to promote autonomic nervous system function, which can reduce stress and impact positively on mood.

2. Enhanced Physical Well-being

Another useful aspect of air is negative ions. In the countryside and in woods, there are about 2000-4000 negative ions and only 100-200 in the city. Negative ions create positive vibes that improve mood, and also cleanliness or freshness of the air can increase the satisfaction of an environment. Ions reach our bloodstream and create biochemical reactions linked to mood, so an increase in the negative ion ratio will result as an antidepressant. It is also said that woodland walks are effective in reducing feelings of hostility and confusion. Steps to take in a greener environment are said to reduce muscle tension and blood pressure.

Calm and stimulating outdoor environments have rejuvenating effects on our body and soul. People think fresh air is good for health and there are various reasons for it. Fresh air is full of oxygen, which is a primary need for the human body. Oxygen is needed to breathe, and oxygen-rich air is an essential element that air contains. It increases the amount of serotonin, which is a feel-good hormone. Oxygen has a positive effect on the human mind. It is considered as brain food, and when it increases, the brain functions more effectively. Consequently, the amount of serotonin increases. An imbalance of serotonin may lead to depression, anxiety, so increasing oxygen in the body triggers a higher level of happiness and well-being.

3. Stress Reduction and Relaxation

In 1991, Kaplan proposed the Attention Restoration Theory which has since gained much empirical support. The theory states that there are two types of attention; directed attention which occurs when we are concentrating on a task, and involuntary attention which requires no mental effort. Prolonged usage of directed attention leads to mental fatigue which in turn results in impulsive behaviour and/or a loss of temper. Nature is considered to be a restorative environment as it is rich in stimuli which are softly fascinating, thus requiring no mental effort, enabling the recovery of the directed attention. Viewing and/or being in nature is also considered to be an effective way of coping with stress, focusing on a phenomenon called ‘place-based attachment’. This is a learned psychological bond with a place that has powerful emotional meaning and can act as a buffer to stressful life experience. An investigation by Ulrich into stress illness patterns amongst women found that the majority of the subjects’ most intense and significant life stresses were related to a place that was devoid of natural settings. He suggested that nature is generally linked to more positive life events, thereby decreasing the probability of stress-related illness and also improving the chance of recovery when in a nature setting.

There are several theories as to why spending time in nature may be effective in delivering stress reduction. Here again, many advocate that this is a result of biophilia; the theory that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Many have described their feelings towards nature as an interconnection; we recognize that we are part of something larger than ourselves thus allowing restoration of internal balance. Others have suggested that it is the open and/or natural spaces that give room to feelings of freedom, which are hard to achieve when feeling stress. With nature being a change of pace from the chaotic and busy modern environments, it is easy to understand how it can deliver as a place of refuge.

4. Boosted Immune System

A few different studies have found that walking in nature has profound effects on the immune system. A study in 2007 found that simply walking in the forest increased natural killer cell activity and the expression of anti-cancer proteins. A 2010 study found that people who take trips to forest areas have increased natural killer cell activity, increased numbers of anti-cancer proteins, decreased activity of sympathetic nervous activity, and lower production of the stress hormone cortisol, compared with people who stay in the city. In addition to the research, we can observe the increased immune health simply by the lack of symptoms and illness that people experience when they are not spending time in a natural environment. The same effects have not been found in other environments such as a city or a rural area, so this research is a strong indication that nature in itself has the ability to make humans healthier.

5. Increased Creativity and Cognitive Function

At the University of Kansas, a group of psychologists is already conducting studies on the theory that exposure to natural settings may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder in children. Towards this end, numerous greener urban areas are being designed to be utilized by these children as an alternative to medication. What these studies have found is intriguing, if not conclusive. An early study found that more active play in children with ADHD was associated with greener settings. This is intriguing, as active children often have difficulty in green-walled institutional schools, which can lead to behavioral problems. Complete understanding of the implications of such studies for the millions of children diagnosed with ADHD will require some time. However, results such as these are tantalizing.

Immersing oneself in nature has been linked to increased performance on creative cognitive tasks. Clearly, interacting with nature provides an environment where the mind can rest, relax, and restore cognitive functions. Several studies have shown that nature walks increase performance on tasks involving memory span and attention by twenty percent. The most intriguing of these findings is that a nature walk, as opposed to an urban walk, produced increased performance on the backwards digit span task, which is a measure of working memory, a part of the executive function of the brain. Furthermore, time in nature or viewing nature scenes increases our ability to pay attention. Because humans find nature inherently interesting, we can naturally focus on what we are experiencing in nature. This also provides a respite for our overactive minds, refreshing us for new tasks and challenges.

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