Not surprisingly, most of us don’t spend enough time outdoors. With all of the conveniences and demands of being indoors, most of us severely lack the benefits of nature to mental and physical health.
Personally, I don’t spend as much time in pure nature as I’d like. Although I enjoy hiking, I rarely go because of various reasons (e.g. my toddler hates going anywhere, my dog isn’t trained for structured hikes yet, etc.). However, I still try to go to grassy areas whenever possible.
I know spending time outdoors is particularly important for children (See our article, Children Outside – 4 Undeniable Benefits + Awesome Activity Ideas, for specific benefits of nature on childhood development.), so encourage my kids to go outside daily, even if simply for a nighttime walk or backyard play.
Adults also significantly benefit from spending time in nature. This article discusses the many remarkable, and perhaps overlooked or unrealized, benefits of nature that are largely lacking in our industrialized society.
Hopefully, you will be inspired to spend more time outdoors, and to bring people you know.
Benefits of Nature on Mental Health
Numerous studies support the benefits of nature on mental health.
For instance, this study revealed that participants who went on a 90-minute walk outside in a natural environment (i.e. grassy with trees and shrubs) showed less activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (i.e. the part of the brain associated with rumination, behavioral withdrawal, and mental illness).
Rumination refers to a person’s negative, repetitive way of thinking about losses and failure, and the past and present. Ruminating after stressful life events is particularly more common in people with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
Thus, spending time outside can not only prevent, but also alleviate, major stress responses and conditions. Quite simply, spending time in nature is good for your mental health.
This article documents the many studies showing how being in a forest reduces stress and anxiety. Some theories on why people experience less stress and anxiety in nature include the lack of threatening or stressful stimuli compared to urban environments, feelings of freedom, and feelings of privacy and solitude.
Studies have linked exposure to forest environments resulting in lower cortisol levels (i.e. the hormone that alerts your body to stress and danger), lower symphathetic nerve activity (i.e. less involuntary responses to stress), and greater parasympathetic nerve activity (i.e. greater relaxation responses).
Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels are usually interrelated. Both are bad for your physical and mental health, so finding ways to decrease your stress and cortisol levels or to keep them low should be a priority. Spending more time in nature is one of those ways.
Benefits of Nature on Physical Health
The aforementioned forest study also found that participants who were exposed to a forest environment had lower pulse rates and blood pressure than in an urban environment.
This study reinforced that forest exposure reduces blood pressure. Participants who spent 7 days in the forest showed a reduction in blood pressure and other components normally associated with hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Thus, spending time in nature can help prevent and alleviate hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Another study showed that participants who spent 2 to 3 days in the forest experienced an increase in natural killer cells (i.e. immune system cells critical to fighting infections or cancer cells) and other disease- and cancer-fighting proteins.
Thus, spending time in nature not only has a restorative effect on people with sickness or health conditions, but also serves as a preventative measure.
How Much Time Outside Confers Benefits?
I believe people should spend time outside daily – basically, as much as possible. At least from my personal experience, I always feel much better if I spend time outside at least once during the day, whether to take an afternoon or evening walk, or simply to tend to my garden. The more trees and grass I see, the better.
One study concluded that you only need to spend 120 minutes a week in nature to derive mental and physical health benefits, regardless of your age or underlying health issues.
According to that study, you can either spend the 120 minutes in one full session, or disperse it over the course of a week. Thus, if you can’t devote a full two hours outside on any given day, you could break the time up into 18 minutes a day. So long as you get a lunch break and are close to somewhere with grass or trees, you could even schedule in this time during the workday!
The study defined nature exposure as “open spaces in and around towns and cities, including parks, canals and nature areas; the coast and beaches; and the countryside including farmland, woodland, hills and rivers.”
Thus, you don’t have to drive all the way to a national forest or hiking trail to derive the benefits of nature. Although studies show the most dramatic results for fully green areas like forests, any space that has notable grass or trees can still bestow benefits.
What if You Have No Greenspace Nearby?
You Don’t Need a Full-Fledged Forest
Again, you don’t necessarily have to go a forest to reap the aforementioned benefits of nature.
This study showed that people exposed to city blocks with at least 11 trees reported decreased cardio-metabolic conditions and improved perceptions of health. On average, participants likened the positive boost to getting a $10,000 raise or being 7 years younger.
So, if you live in a city or somewhere remote from natural landscapes, try to find a section with at least some grass or trees. Most cities have at least one square or park with some greenery, even if just trees. Or, aspire to leave the city for regular weekend picnics or hikes elsewhere that has greenspace.
What if You Have Zero Trees Nearby or Transportation?
If you live somewhere with no concentration of grass, trees, or shrubs, and have no means to commute to a place with them, then replicate nature indoors.
This study showed that participants who viewed photos of green landscapes increased their relaxation response (i.e. parasympathetic nerve activity) if they were experiencing stress.
Another study revealed that listening to sounds of nature similarly evokes a relaxation response in stressed individuals.
Both studies show the alleviating effect of seeing or hearing nature on stress, but are less conclusive on the preventative effects against certain health conditions. Thus, replicating nature in your house or office shouldn’t substitute actually going outside to experience nature, but it is better than nothing and does still confer benefits!
Summary on Benefits of Nature
The most therapeutic and healthy benefits of nature come from being in nature itself. That is, fully immersing yourself in a green environment away from urban sounds and landscapes, whether it be a forest or grass field. The more green around you, the better.
Yet, not everyone can access truly green settings. Thankfully, studies show that even exposure to green in an urban setting, like a city block lined with trees, can provide some benefits of nature.
After we moved into a neighborhood with a lot more grass and trees than our prior neighborhood, we immediately felt more positive about our surroundings and everyday life. Thus, I can personally attest to the benefits of seeing green on a regular basis.
However, if you have no outside options and can’t regularly get to a place that does, you can at least try to simulate nature inside to derive some relaxing benefits.
Thanks for reading our article on the benefits of nature. Please comment below on how you try to incorporate more nature into your life or on any mental or physical health benefits that you have personally experienced when exposed to nature. Hearing others’ perspectives and experiences is always wonderful.