Recently I relocated to the big city of San Francisco, and while I love the vibrant community, super hip food, and big sustainability scene, being in the city means there is a bit less greenery in my daily life.
Luckily, SF is really close to green adventures, and we’ve been able to experience Muir Woods, Yosemite, Russian River canoeing, and so much more with weekend jaunts outside of the city. Finding nature time has been a nearly weekly endeavor, and it’s always exciting to see how much my brain and body change with just a few hours in the wild. And it turns out, there’s some good science behind why nature time is good for our brains and our bodies.
Green Life vs City Life
It’s probably not a surprise to you that we spend much less time outside than we did even a few years ago, but what you might be surprised to learn about is how much this can affect our wellbeing! The New York Times recently covered this topic in a blog entitled ‘How Nature Changes the Brain‘, and it turns out, it’s quite a lot.
Here’s just one example: “various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks, and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.” Further research shows that this can actually affect our brain on a deeper level.
Graduate researcher Gregory Bratman gathered volunteers at Stanford, and assessed their level of ‘brooding’ or ruminating on problems. Brooding of this sort can be a precursor for depression, nevermind just making us feel pretty terrible. City dwellers seem to have higher levels of brooding, but Bratman wanted to see if this could be reduced by time spent in green spaces. These results “strongly suggest that getting out into natural environments” could be an easy and almost immediate way to improve moods for city dwellers, Mr. Bratman said in the article.
Further research from Western Michigan University shows similar results. Slate reports that Roger S. Ulrich spearheaded some of the earliest studies of nature time. “He found that students who viewed nature photos after being exposed to a stressful and demanding task reported increased feelings of affection, playfulness, friendliness, and elation. The group that viewed urban scenes reported feeling sadness.” And other studies in Japan showed, “lower cortisol [stress hormone] levels in those who took forest walks when compared with those who walked the same distance in a lab.”
Benefits of Being in the Forest
While these results are pretty promising, most too place in small green spaces on campus on within cities. So this type of nature time is super important and beneficial for people living in urban areas, but it makes me wonder what REAL nature time can do for us. If small green space within an urban area is helpful, what can a whole forest do for us?
Looks like a lot. In that same article from Slate, the author writes, “Nippon Medical School found that visits to the forest (compared with urban trips) can have a long-lasting influence on immune system markers, increasing the activity of antiviral cells and intracellular anti-cancer proteins—and these changes remained significant for a full week after the visit.
Even the scent of nature may be beneficial: Chemicals secreted by trees, known as phytoncides, have been linked with improved immune defense as well as a reduction in anxiety and increase in pain threshold [and other research shows that] children’s ADHD symptoms decreased after they spent time outside.” Amazing!
Healthy Parks, Healthy People report on the practice of ‘forest bathing-‘ spending time in the forest to soak in, if you will, the benefits. HPHP says, “In one study the Profile of Mood States (POMS) test was used to show that forest bathing trips significantly increased the score of vigour in subjects, and decreased the scores for anxiety, depression and anger – leading to the recommendation that habitual forest bathing may help to decrease the risk of psychosocial stress-related diseases.”
So Many Reasons to Get Outside
And there are so many more benefits. This list, taken primarily from the New York State Department of Conservation, shows that being in the forest offers our bodies a host of benefits, including:
1. Boosts immune system: In the forest we breathe in phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. In one study, increased NK activity from a 3-day, 2-night forest bathing trip lasted for more than 30 days. Japanese researchers are currently exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer.
2. Reduces stress: Numerous studies show that both exercising in forests and simply sitting looking at the trees reduce blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Looking at pictures of trees has a similar, but less dramatic, effect. Studies examining the same activities in urban, unplanted areas showed no reduction of stress-related effects.
3. Increases ability to focus, even in children with ADHD: Spending time in nature helps you focus. Our lives are busier than ever with jobs, school, and family life. Trying to focus on many activities or even a single thing for long periods of time can mentally drain us, a phenomenon called Directed Attention Fatigue. Spending time in nature, looking at plants, water, birds and other aspects of nature gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break, allowing us to focus better and renew our ability to be patient.
4. Improves mood: Using the Profile of Mood States test, researchers found that forest bathing trips significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue. And because stress inhibits the immune system, the stress-reduction benefits of forests are further magnified.
5. Accelerates recovery from surgery or illness: patients looking at green spaces or green, living things healed faster during their recovery time.
6. Increases energy level: A few breathes of fresh air does a body good, and research proves that it makes us feel more energetic too!
7. Lowers blood pressure: “Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality, according to scientists such as public health researchers Stamatakis and Mitchell.”
8. Improves sleep: As you stress hormones lower and your body feels more calm, sleep should come easier and be deeper. The less time we spend in front of screens the better our chances are for good sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic.
9. You can find yourself, and your place in the universe. Not only do you have time just to think, to feel, to be, being in Nature allows us to connect with the Divine. Whether you call it God, the Universe, experience in nature brings us to our source.
10. It just feels good! The sun in your face, the fresh air, the silence, the exercise of walking or running in the forest. All of these things add up to a healthier, happier self.
And just in case you need more reasons to get outside, this great post from EcoWatch shares 10 reasons to get outside that have nothing to do with exercise!