More and more research is focusing on the benefits of the great outdoors on our health.
The past decade has seen a huge shift in our appreciation of the power of nature and yet, at the same time, we are increasingly aware of the perils of global warming, pollution and other issues that are threatening our environment.
More understanding of the importance of our environment for our health and mental wellbeing may encourage us to take better care of it! So, here’s a round-up of some of the studies that show how much we stand to gain from nature.
Multiple studies have shown that exposure to nature can reduce stress by showing a drop in the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is difficult to measure accurately, as it fluctuates, but some researchers have accounted for that by comparing exercising in rural versus urban environments. The study participants in the green spaces showed a lower cortisol level.
Anxiety, depressive symptoms and similar issues can be improved by spending time outdoors. Forest walking was found to have the best effects in some studies comparing a variety of natural environments. One interesting study showed changes in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, an area concerned with emotional regulation, when exposed to plants. Interestingly, there was some reported feeling of comfort in seeing pictures of the plants, but not the full brain changes caused by the real thing. So, those nature documentaries can help – but aren’t going to have the same effect as being out there!
Boost Brain Function
Statistically significant changes in brain function have also been found with being in nature compared to rural environments. Improved attention, memory and executive function are just some of the benefits you can get by heading outdoors.
Reducing stress, resetting your body clock with natural light and getting fresh air and exercise can help sleep – and they are all easier if you are surrounded by nature. Of course, the lack of city noise waking you up in the morning helps too. And better sleep has a positive effect on other mental health issues too.
Of course, all of these boosts to mental wellbeing will help your physical health too. Lower cortisol reduces risk of obesity, diabetes and blood pressure. Improved mood is also associated with better physical health outcomes. And the numerous other benefits of nature on reducing respiratory problems, allergies and more are further evidence of how important our environment really is.
There seems no doubt that a green prescription can help improve our health. We need more research to know the right dose and formulation for this particular treatment. In the meantime, the more time you can spend in green places, the better. And the more we can do to preserve nature, the healthier our future will be.
Jimenez MP, DeVille NV, Elliott EG, et al. Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(9):4790.
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