From increased memory to reduced heart rates and improved mental wellbeing, the health benefits of getting outside are now being recognized by doctors and scientists worldwide.
US author Florence Williams’ new book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, looks at what we now know about the relationship between the great outdoors and human health, and what we can do to take advantage of the natural remedy all around us.
In this free-ranging interview she explains why people are spending more time inside due to urban living and technology. “Even kids who live in the country are coming home from school and playing video games,” she says.
According to Williams’ research, people are spending, on average, an incredible 95 percent of their time indoors. She says researchers have varying recommendations about how often people should be outside, but scientists in Finland recommend at least five hours outside a month.
“The city parks are okay and they will help you feel better, but if you really are serious about fighting depression, it’s better to be in a more ‘naturey’ area, with a minimum of five hours a month.”
The effects of being out in nature may also last much longer than the initial feel-good factor, says Williams. “Researchers have found that while we’re out in the woods we actually increase our immune cells and … our cancer-fighting cells, a really important part of our immune system. Those cells seem to increase after a walk in the woods, and they don’t increase after a walk in the city.
“The effect actually lasts for a week at a pretty high level and then it tapers off but there’s still some residual effect after 21 days.”
‘‘ We evolved in outdoor environments, you know, over millions of years… Our indoor life has been incredibly recent. ’’
Even if you can’t make it into the wilderness, she adds, there’s still plenty to be gained from spending time in a park closer to town. “If you want to maximize your sense of restoration and stress recovery, you get a much better effect if you actually try and listen to the birds, try to look at some of the patterns, for example, in the trees, the leaves or the creeks, and a lot of city parks have some amazing nature features in them.”
Having grown up a few blocks from New York’s Central Park, Williams says she appreciates the effort designer Frederick Law Olmstead went to in creating features there. “He really understood intuitively that people living in urban environments needed some beautiful elements of nature in order to recover from city living. So he designed things like winding pathways in his parks … beautiful big trees, boulders, meadows that you could look across. All these elements that really maximize a sort of sense of delight and pleasure and community even.”
Japanese scientists have found that even short walks in nature can reduce blood pressure, change heart rate variability and stress rate profile. “They’ve taken it so seriously that they’ve now designated 48 forest therapy trails,” Williams says. “And on these trails people are really encouraged to go out and do something called ‘forest bathing’. It does not involve taking off all your clothes, but it does involve cueing in to all five senses and really paying attention to where you are.” Doctors are even prescribing outdoor time as part of their patients’ treatment. “These studies quite consistently find that people’s nervous systems calm down when they’re outside.”
Why nature has such a positive effect on our brains is probably related to human evolution. “We evolved in outdoor environments, you know, over millions of years… Our indoor life has been incredibly recent.
“We tend to think that shopping or streaming Netflix, that those things will make us feel really great and then we under-value how good nature makes us feel.”
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