There’s a reason why being outdoors in nature feels so good — it’s great for your health on multiple levels. A massive study involving data from more than 140 studies and 290 million people revealed that exposure to greenspace, defined as open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation, led to significant reductions in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number), salivary cortisol (a physiological marker of stress) and heart rate, along with significant decreases in Type 2 diabetes and mortality from all causes and those specifically related to the heart.1
The risk of premature birth also declined in pregnant women, as did the risk of having a baby small in size for their gestational age. Incidences of good self-reported health, meanwhile, rose among those lucky enough to have greenspace exposure. When other health outcomes were factored in, between 66 percent and 100 percent of the studies showed that increased greenspace exposure was associated with better health, including improved outcomes for neurological disorders, cancer and respiratory mortality.
‘Green Prescriptions’ Could Improve Your Health
Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air (literally!) if your doctor prescribed you a “green prescription” instead of a prescription drug? According to the featured study, “Green prescriptions involving greenspace use may have substantial benefits.” It’s not a new idea; quite to the contrary, the benefits of spending time in nature have been recognized since the early 1800s, when open spaces and parks started to be created in growing cities like London.2
Modern cities, too, are increasingly seeking to incorporate green space into their planning. As the World Health Organization (WHO) notes, parks, woods, wetlands, meadows and other green spaces contribute oxygen to the air while filtering out air pollution. They also help to moderate temperatures and cool cities, while providing areas where people can safely exercise and interact socially.
“Green spaces also are important to mental health,” WHO states. “Having access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in treatment of mental illness. Some analysis suggests that physical activity in a natural environment can help remedy mild depression and reduce physiological stress indicators.”3
You may also have heard of the “Healthy Parks, Healthy People” movement put out by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), which encourages people to spend time in parks and public lands to create healthy societies. The benefits of park time shared by NPS include:4
- Improved your mood
- Improved physical, mental and spiritual health
- Increased social connections, which add to community cohesion
- Encouraging active play in children, which is linked to physical, cognitive and social benefits
- Improved social well-being
There’s even a ParkRx, or Park Prescriptions, movement, created via a collaboration between the Institute at the Golden Gate, the National Recreation and Park Association and NPS, which involves just what its name suggests: a health or social services provider giving a patient or client a “prescription” to spend more time in nature in order to improve their physical health and well-being. Professor Andy Jones of the University of East Anglia (UAE) in England, who co-wrote the featured study, stated:5
“We often reach for medication when we’re unwell but exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognized as both preventing and helping treat disease. Our study shows that the size of these benefits can be enough to have a meaningful clinical impact.”
Why ‘Forest Bathing’ Is so Good for You
In Japan, a practice known as Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which is another term for spending time in nature, is incredibly popular. In a study that compared the health effects of spending time in a forest versus spending time in a city, the forest environment was found to promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity and lower sympathetic nerve activity.6
It’s even been found that visiting a forest increases the activity of natural killer cells, a part of the immune system, as well as the expression of anticancer proteins — beneficial effects that persisted for at least seven days after the visit to the forest.8 Volatile compounds called phytoncides, such as alpha-pinene and beta-pinene, are released from trees and found in forest air.9
They’ve been shown to reduce stress hormones and anxiety while improving blood pressure and immunity, according to Dr. Eva Selhub, a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School and a clinical associate of Massachusetts General Hospital.10
It’s thought that phytoncides released from trees, as well as reductions in stress hormone, may be partly responsible for the increased activity of killer cells.11 When nearly 500 volunteers spent time in a forest, they experienced significant reductions in stress levels, including lower scores in feelings of hostility and depression.
The researchers described forests as “therapeutic landscapes” and said they could be extremely advantageous for dealing with acute emotions, especially for people with chronic stress.12 It could be that this reconnection to nature is helping to solve the disconnect many people feel when they’re removed from nature. According to researchers in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health:13
“Humans have evolved into what they are today after the passage of 6 to 7 million years. If we define the beginning of urbanization as the rise of the industrial revolution, less than 0.01 percent of our species’ history has been spent in modern surroundings. Humans have spent over 99.99 percent of their time living in the natural environment.
The gap between the natural setting, for which our physiological functions are adapted, and the highly urbanized and artificial setting that we inhabit is a contributing cause of the ‘stress state’ in modern people … We believe that nature therapy will play an increasingly important role in preventive medicine in the future.”
It’s also possible that exposure to microbes in the natural environment are providing some of the protective effects. Ambient bacteria, such as Mycobacterium vaccae, for instance, has been shown to reduce anxiety-related behavior and improve learning in mice,14 and it’s possible people inhale such mood-boosting hormones when they’re outside playing or working in the dirt.
“[E]xposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas may also have benefits for the immune system and reduce inflammation,” said featured study author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School.15
Will Nature Therapy Take Off?
Increasingly, researchers are leaning toward nature-based therapies as a way to improve public health, with impressive results In one systematic review of both controlled and observational studies, nature-assisted therapy led to significant improvements in a variety of health conditions ranging from obesity to schizophrenia.16 Benefits have also been documented for cancer survivors, including:17
- Dragon boat racing, conducted on natural bodies of water, may enhance quality of life in breast cancer survivors
- Natural environment may counteract attentional fatigue in newly diagnosed breast cancer survivors
- Outdoor adventure programs foster a sense of belonging and self-esteem for children and adolescent cancer survivors
- Therapeutic landscapes may decrease anxiety, improving health
Even exposure to a virtual reality forest, which included the sounds of nature, was beneficial for people recovering from physiological stress,18 while exposure to indoor nature environments in a work environment (such as plants and fountains) was also linked to less job stress and less absence due to sickness.19 While exposure to the real outdoors is best, this suggests that even bringing nature indoors may offer noticeable benefits for office-strapped workers (or those otherwise stuck in indoor environments, such as hospital).
Grounding: Another Reason to Get Outdoors
The concept of grounding was initially developed by Clint Ober, who began studying it in an effort to heal himself. As a retired cable television executive, Ober noticed that when cables are “grounded” to the Earth, it eliminates interference from the signal. All electrical systems are stabilized in this way, which led Ober to wonder whether the human body, also a bioelectrical, signal-transmitting organism, should also be grounded.20
He describes the invention of synthetic materials, which in turn allowed synthetic soles to be put onto our shoes, as a key part of the problem, as it effectively insulates us from the Earth. It’s not unusual for Americans to spend their entire days, from sun up to sun down, indoors, without being grounded. But though it has become the norm, it’s also completely unnatural. We depend on the Earth to survive, but we’ve become entirely disconnected from it, such that we’re completely separate.
When you put your bare feet on the ground, however, you absorb large amounts of negative electrons through the soles of your feet. In today’s world, this is more important than ever, yet fewer people than ever connect with the Earth in this way anymore. Free radical stress from exposure to pollution, cigarettes, pesticides, processed foods and radiation, just to name a few, continually deplete your body of electrons.
But the Earth is always electron-rich and can serve as a powerful and abundant supply of antioxidant free radical-busting electrons. One study found that grounding produces measurable differences in the concentrations of molecules, including white blood cells and cytokines, involved in the inflammatory response.
The report also found that grounding “reduces pain and alters the numbers of circulating neutrophils and lymphocytes, and also affects various circulating chemical factors related to inflammation.”21 To reap the rewards, all you need to do is walk barefoot in the grass, a sandy beach or a forest floor — even hugging a tree can be an excellent form of grounding, even helping to filter out dirty electricity.
Tips for Spending More Time in Nature
You needn’t wait for a “park prescription” to make spending time in nature a priority. Try getting up 30 minutes earlier and going for a walk in a park or forest preserve, or use your lunch break to meditate under a tree or listen to the sounds of nature or flowing water. When you have more time, take a hike in the woods or escape to the mountains or a beach. You can also combine your exercise time with nature by doing your workouts outdoors.
Also, remember the importance of grounding, and seek to stay grounded to the Earth as much as possible. All you need to do is place your bare feet on the ground, whether it be dirt, grass, sand or unsealed, unpainted concrete (especially when humid or wet). When you’re indoors, a grounding pad can be used while working or sleeping.
Finally, don’t underestimate the significance of adding natural features to your indoor environment, especially plants, and choose a room with a natural view whenever possible (when it’s not, add photos of nature to your indoor space). Another way to enjoy nature is by planting your own flowerbeds and vegetable garden, which allows you to spend time cultivating the soil and also enjoying the harvest — eating natural homegrown foods is another way you can connect with and benefit from nature.