Do you consider yourself a nature buff? Do you instinctively seek out green spaces and have a “Sounds of Babbling Brooks” playlist on repeat in your car? Are you more sand and sunset than sidewalk?
Maybe your idea of the perfect vacation is backpacking in the Smokies, rather than visiting museums and monuments. When you imagine your dream home, do you picture yourself in a yurt in the woods instead of in a high-rise condo overlooking the impressive (fill-in-the-blank) skyline?
If nature is calling, answer it. Because it turns out that it’s really good for your health.
The Call of the Wild
Humans have a longstanding relationship with nature. We evolved as a species primarily while living in nature. We were hunter-gatherers long before we were farmers, but even farming still connects us to the natural world. It’s only relatively recently, since farming has gradually turned into warming up a microwave dinner, and city living became the norm, that our connection to nature has become gradually more distant. (1, 2)
But our bodies don’t understand that and still long for our naturalistic roots. That’s why many people are happiest — and healthiest — when they spend more time in nature. (1, 2, 3, 4)
It wasn’t until the 1700s and the Industrial Revolution that we began to become more urbanized and to live in built-up areas, or “cities.” But with a history of 6 to 7 million years of living in nature, urban living still only accounts for 0.01% of human living environments throughout time. (2)
Yet that trend is turning, and it’s expected that by 2050, just under three-fourths of the world’s population will live in urban areas. This could have an adverse effect on our health. (2)
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
It is a widely held belief that urban environments may make us sick, whereas spending time in nature could provide a heap of health benefits. For example, research has shown that people who live in urban areas have more anxiety and mood disorders than people who live in rural areas. (3, 4)
One study tested the effects of walking in the woods versus walking on a busy road or conducting everyday life activities. It looked at levels of stress and anxiety, as well as the participants’ positive and negative outlook and reactions, and discovered that the forest walk provided the greatest psychological benefits. (5)
Another study discovered that walking in nature lowered stress and improved mood more than physical exercise when not in nature. (6)
After all, how many times has someone told you that all you need to do to feel better is to “get a little fresh air?” Since nearly the beginning of time, nature has been associated with health and well-being.
Gardens were built surrounding 13th-century monasteries to keep monks both physically and spiritually strong. In the 19th century, men suffering from depression and migraines were sent off to ranches to rope horses amidst the beautiful landscapes of the great outdoors. From bathing in natural springs to breathing in rural air, “nature therapy” has long been thought to help with whatever ails you. But why is that? (3)
Connecting with Nature Comes Naturally to Us
Our liaison with Mother Nature has existed since the beginning of time. For that reason, the human body instinctively relates to and craves nature. Our biological functions depend on nature, but are disrupted by urban life. This concept of physiological dependence on nature is sometimes referred to as the “biophilia hypothesis.” (2, 4)
Based on this hypothesis and our innate tie to nature, there are two theories that look at how spending time in nature could have a positive influence on our health: (4, 7)
The Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that the chaos of modern life leads to mental fatigue and a lack of focus. Supporters of this theory believe that increasing time spent in nature will help alleviate this mental fatigue and increase our ability to concentrate.
The Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) says that spending time in nature could promote positive emotions and help alleviate stress via the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of our autonomic nervous system that deals with our relaxation response. That means that when our parasympathetic nervous system is functioning at its best, we feel tranquil and stress-free.
Forces of Nature
There has been considerable research into why and how natural environments are good for you. This research shows that there are endless advantages to getting back to nature.
Spending a little more time outside in a naturalistic setting can help you look and feel better. It can fight disease, improve brain function, and encourage you to be more active. It may even help you live longer! (4)
Health Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
Here are some of the many positives that nature can do for you: (4)
1. Boosts cognitive function
Want to sharpen your brain? Head outside. Natural environments may help you focus and improve your attention, memory, organizational skills, and much more. They also likely increase activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls emotion.
In addition, some experts suggest that exposing children to green spaces will help promote their brain development while giving them opportunities for creativity, discipline, discovery, mastery, restraint, and risk-taking.
2. Encourages greater physical activity
Studies have shown that those with nearby and easy access to green spaces are consistently more physically active than those who spend more time indoors. This is surely due to the fact that many people prefer to exercise outdoors, and having a place to exercise right outside the front door makes it easier to be more active.
In one study, children who spent 20 minutes or more in nature every day were nearly five times as active as those who were not exposed to nature. Not to mention that, as we’ve seen, walking in nature is thought to have plenty of health benefits of its own.
3. Improves mental health
Multiple studies have shown that being in nature can help remove potential sources of anxiety and depression.
Some studies even suggested that children who spend more time in nature perform better on standardized tests, are more social, and are less likely to develop autism. In addition, they are less depressed later in life and have fewer psychiatric disorders as adults.
4. Improves mood
Similarly, spending time in nature seems to make people happier! Activities such as “forest-bathing,” which is roughly translated from the Japanese shinrin-yoku and essentially involves just hanging out in the forest, have been shown to increase positivity. Nature-based activities lessen hostility and encourage relaxation and emotional well-being.
5. Increases immunity
Research has revealed that forest-bathing helps improve immune function. Following excursions to the forest, participants in one study showed an increase in the activity of their natural killer (NK) cells, which are an integral part of the immune system.
This immunity boost is likely influenced by the fact that when we spend time in nature, we are exposed to phytonicides. These are substances that plants produce to protect themselves from insects and disease, but they also appear to help humans fight disease.
6. Lessens risk of diabetes
Some research has found a possible link between soaking up nature and decreased rates of type 2 diabetes in adults. In younger study participants, nature-loving kids and teens showed better fasting blood glucose levels and less insulin resistance.
7. Lowers blood pressure
There is considerable evidence that getting into nature can decrease both systolic and diastolic blood pressure rates, causing people to feel more relaxed.
8. Lowers rates of obesity
In the same way that increased physical activity is linked to nature, research has shown that those who are more nature-centric and seek out green spaces tend to have lower body mass indexes and less instances of being overweight or obese.
9. Promotes better sleep
Studies have shown that people who live near green spaces and/or close to some non-urban setting such as a lake, ocean, or trees reported less instances of insufficient sleep. This may be due to the fact that such locations often tend to have less sleep-disrupting noise.
10. Reduces stress
Research has shown that people who spend more time in nature feel less stressed. Many people also exhibit lower levels of cortisol, which is the hormone that your body produces in reaction to stress.
11. Speeds up recovery from illness
Researchers conducted a study on hospital patients following gallbladder surgery. Some patients were assigned to a hospital room with a window overlooking nature, while others were forced to recover while staring at a brick wall outside their window.
Those with the nature view had more positive health evaluations by their examining nurses, remained in the hospital for less time, and required less medication during their recovery.
12. Supports cardiovascular health
More time in nature can promote better heart health. Spending time where it’s green can promote healthy blood pressure levels, motivate more-frequent exercising, and reduce stress.
On the other hand, those who spend insufficient time in nature have higher rates of coronary heart disease and are at increased risk of mortality following a stroke or cardiovascular incident.
13. Supports healthier pregnancies
Babies conceived where nearby green space is in abundance tend to have better birth weights and are at less risk of birth complications, and their mothers are usually healthier and experience lower instances of preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.
Nature in Its Many Forms
Nature is all around us. It can be a nearby forest, a river running through the center of your town, or your favorite park. It might be a garden in your backyard or fresh food from a weekend farmers market.
What constitutes “nature” or how you choose to take advantage of it is different for everyone. Some people would rather picnic in the woods or walk the trails, wheras others might want to go jump in the lake. Some experts even consider all animals as a part of nature, and therefore, something as simple as petting your dog can be considered a way to connect with nature — with proven health benefits! (3)
Unfortunately, however, it’s not always easy going green — nature isn’t so readily accessible for everyone. Yet even if you live in a bustling metropolis where the closest to nature you get is the potted fern on your 10th-floor cement balcony or the 20-foot patch of grass at the dog park next door, take heart. There are still ways to work a little nature into your life.
In studies, even people who viewed photos of nature while indoors exhibited less stress and greater relaxation; and viewing nature helped activate the brain and autonomic nervous system, which helps the body cope with stress. Exposing people even to small elements of real nature, such as bonsai trees, flowers, and plants while indoors had similar — and sometimes greater — physiological benefits. (1, 2)
All this proves that there are many ways for you to step up the nature in your life, and you can find a way what works best for you. Especially if connecting with nature just isn’t second nature to you, here’s a list to help you. Check out these examples of nature in its many forms and how they can benefit you and all five of your senses.
Stop and smell the roses
Nature is full of smells, and they can be very healthy. The smells of nature include such things as the odors of animals, dirt, fruits, flowers, grass, and trees. (3, 8)
You may be familiar with aromatherapy. It involves using fragrance — usually from essential oils, which are sourced from plants — to promote health benefits. Essential oils can lessen anxiety, blood pressure levels, depression, and stress. (3, 9)
Plants produce these essential oils to fight off insects, pathogens, and plant-eaters, so some researchers suggest that these oils could also be used to protect and fight pathogens in human beings. (3)
Certain smells have positive effects on our health and well-being. When something smells good, it gives us pleasure. Smells can also influence our behavior, cognition, and state of mind. Our sense of smell is linked to our emotions, memories, and mood, thus allowing for the possibility of many positive smell-based benefits. (3)
Studies showed that the smell of summer air and beeswax may lead to feelings of happiness, and the smell of a fragrant garden encouraged attentiveness, tranquility, and a positive mood. In addition, smelling lavender or spiced apple has been linked to improved cognition. Lavender is also known to promote relaxation. (3)
In addition to providing possible health benefits of their own, nature smells also remind us of nature. And nature makes us feel good. Therefore, these smells can make us relaxed and happy due to our positive associations with nature. (3)
Seeing the forest for the trees
When most people think of nature, their mind usually goes to its visual aspects. It’s hard not to notice and be impressed by nature’s beautiful scenery — those breathtaking landscapes of colorful flower gardens, lush woodlands, tree-covered mountains, or turquoise blue waters.
Viewing nature has long been known to promote relaxation and ease fatigue and stress. It lowers blood pressure and heart rates, boosts brain activity and focus, and helps recovery from stressors. (2)
Some research suggests that the blue and green colors associated with nature’s vibrant vistas are considered pleasing to the eye and may also reduce irritation and anxiety. Nature’s visual appeal could also be the design elements of the scenery — an absence of the straight lines and lack of sharp, aggressive angles that are prevalent in urban cityscapes. In other words, it’s the curviness of the rolling green hills, the fluidity of the water. (3)
Whatever it is that makes them so aesthetically appealing, nature landscapes have found their way into art museums, computer wallpaper collections, and framed home décor all around the world. And looking at them seems to make us healthier.
The music of the wilderness
There’s a reason that almost every spa or dentist’s office you set foot in has nature sounds piped into all the rooms. They do that to relax you. Music and sounds associated with nature are used to lessen agitation, anxiety, and stress levels. (3)
They can also make you feel like you’re in nature. Research has shown that people prefer to view images or displays of nature when they’re accompanied by nature sounds, and that adding the audio makes them feel less crowded and more liberated — as if outdoors. (3)
Some of the most popular sounds are those of birds, water, and wind, and listening to these made participants in a study notice traffic noises less and feel more pleasure. (3)
One of the main reasons that nature sounds relax us is because of their association with peace and quiet. (3)
Some 30 million Americans are exposed to dangerous noise levels every day at work, and approximately 360 million people around the world suffer from noise-based hearing loss, of which 32 million are children. Chronic noise can cause cardiovascular issues, stress, and unease, and it can affect our sleep and our ability to perform tasks. (3, 10, 11)
For this reason, getting away from the loud and troublesome noises of city life and replacing them with silence and/or the less-aggressive sounds of nature is what makes these sounds so appealing. (3)
In fact, several studies discovered that people chose to visit parks, natural parks, and a certain river primarily for the sounds they can hear there. In addition, the trees and other vegetation found in nature act as natural noise-blockers that keep urban noises at bay. (3)
Therefore, when people hear nature sounds, they can imagine themselves in a quieter and more relaxed environment, away from the hustle, bustle, and cacophony of city life, thus putting them in an overall state of relaxation. (3)
All of our food, even the processed and packaged stuff, originated in nature. Of course, freshly harvested and whole foods remain much closer to nature, whereas processed foods are often modified and mutilated to the point where they barely resemble their natural form. But regardless of which foods we select, eating connects us to nature because that’s where our foods come from. (3)
Many people claim to choose organic foods because they appear more natural, and therefore are considered a healthier, more nutritious option. These people assume that such foods will smell and taste better and make them feel better when they eat them. And it’s true that opting for the freshest and most natural foods is a healthier option. (3)
Research has shown that eating foods that are pure and less processed promotes better mental health, including decreasing instances of anxiety and depression. It can also help support healthy body weight. (3)
Garden to table
If you want to be even closer to nature than by buying organic foods, there’s always the option of growing your own. Not only can you be sure that your homegrown food is healthy and pesticide-free that way, but you can also reap all the benefits of spending more time in nature. (3)
Gardening is said to boost your mental health, help you lose weight, improve your quality of life, and promote feelings of connection and contentment. (12)
One study found that people who grow their own food are happier than people who don’t, providing advantages such as satisfaction, self-fulfillment, self-help, and skill development. And, thanks to organizations such as community gardens and farms, community markets, food co-ops, and gardening clubs, food growing can provide a social connection, sense of community, and feelings of belonging. (3)
It can also save you a lot of money! (3)
Emotional power of taste
In addition to all of the benefits of growing your own food and eating healthy, another positive connection to nature through food is tasting it. (3)
Anyone who has ever craved chocolate or eaten a life-alteringly delicious cheeseburger knows that the sense of taste is linked to our emotions. And this is true from the time we’re born. Eating food that tastes good makes us happy. It’s thought to help prevent anxiety and improve our emotional state. (3)
In fact, a study found that our most common emotional reactions to food include desire, enjoyment, and satisfaction. On the other hand, anger, jealousy, and sadness were the least common (unless you feel those emotions because someone got the last slice of pizza). (3)
Touched by nature
The sense of touch is one of our most important, and it is also the very first sense that we develop. (3)
Touching nature can involve many different things, from the feel of rushing water to walking barefoot on the grass to the sensation of sunlight on your shoulders. It can be digging in the soil with your hands or jumping in the leaves.
One area of “nature-touch” that has been extensively researched is that of petting or touching animals. Animals tend to make us feel relaxed and bring us comfort, and pets help lower our levels of frustration, loneliness, pain, and stress. In fact, people who own pets tend to have lower blood pressure and heart rates, as well as lower triglyceride levels. (3)
When we touch animals, it can help our cardiovascular system. It lowers our blood pressure, cortisol, heart rate, and stress. Petting animals relaxes our nervous system. In a study, petting live rabbits or turtles reduced anxiety and stress more so than petting a stuffed toy. (3)
The act of touching or stroking an animal also causes us to produce oxytocin, a hormone that provides us with all kinds of endocrine, psychological, and social benefits. When our oxytocin levels increase, we feel less anxious, depressed, or stressed and more relaxed and social. We experience less inflammation and pain. Oxytocin boosts our immune and parasympathetic nervous systems and even helps our digestion. (3)
This is why animals are often used for therapy, especially for psychological or psychiatric reasons. If you’ve ever seen anyone with an “emotional support ferret” or some other companion creature, you can understand why. Animals really do provide us with endless mental and physical health benefits. (3)
Down to earth
You may have heard of grounding. Also known as “earthing,” grounding is the process of connecting to Earth and its many electrons through direct physical contact with the ground. This usually involves: (13, 14)
- Lying on the ground.
- Swimming or bathing outdoors.
- Touching the ground (such as planting or gardening).
- Walking barefoot outside.
- While sitting, sleeping, or working indoors, connecting to “grounding systems,” which conduct the Earth’s electrons to the body from the ground.
The human body is an energetic and electrical being. This includes not only our chakras, energy fields, and meridians, but also our metabolism and nerve impulses. Because of that, the Earth’s electrons can have many beneficial effects on our bodies and our health. (13, 14)
The pull of the Earth’s electrical fields on our own can positively affect and stabilize our internal systems, including our biological rhythms, hormone production, organs, and tissues. (13, 14)
It can also neutralize harmful free radicals that would otherwise impair our immune system and lead to inflammation. That means that grounding can activate our parasympathetic nervous system, decrease pain and inflammation, fight disease, and help us heal more quickly and sleep better. (13, 14)
Let Nature Take Its Course
Don’t fight the call of nature. Get outdoors and let nature do its thing.
It’s nature’s way to provide you with all kinds of health benefits. Spending time in a natural environment can help you alleviate stress, make you feel good, relax your nervous system, and improve your overall mental state.
So go on, take it outside. Go wild. Be natural. Hug a tree. Embrace nature and everything that it can do for you, naturally.