Want Better Health? Go Outside
Being in green or blue spaces may improve your physical and mental health
If you want to feel better, become more active and live longer, the answer may sound similar to the familiar real estate mantra: Location, location, location. Being out in nature — or even living close to it — can have a significant, positive impact on your health.
And nature doesn’t have to mean vast swaths of wilderness. It can also be an urban park, a garden or even a tree-lined street. The current lingo for describing different natural environments is green space (an area with a high density of green in an otherwise urban setting) and blue space (water-based environs with standing or running water such as oceans, lakes, rivers, fountains or streams).
So is nature the new-old miracle medicine for brain health?
Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, thinks so. Her recent book extols the effect that nature can imprint not just on our psyche, but on our soul. (Williams also wrote Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History and hosts the Breasts Unbound podcast on Audible.com.)
To find out why nature has such a profound effect on us, Williams tracked researchers all over the globe who are developing new frontiers of nature neuroscience. Peter James, a researcher at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Population Medicine, says, “This is the biophilia theory — that we evolved with nature to have an affinity for nature.” But technology creep has eroded that affinity. On average, says Williams, less than a quarter of American adults say they spend 30 minutes or more outside every day.
The science is just starting to prove what we intuitively feel: that nature holds a rejuvenating power for both brain and body. Here are five life-changing reasons to get yourself to a park, forest or beach:
1. Nature as a Stress-Buster
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology measured Finnish people’s well-being in three environments: a city center, a busy city park and an urban woodland. Researchers found that people who sat a mere 15 minutes in both the park and forest had a sense of feeling psychologically restored. Cortisol (a stress hormone) levels significantly decreased in both nature-based settings.
For those confined to the indoors, a room with a nature view can still make a dent in stress levels. A seminal study published decades ago showed that patients in hospital rooms with nature views spent less time in the hospital and needed less pain medication than those in hospital rooms with a view of a brick wall.
And if you are a stuck in the office, try angling for a desk with a view: Office workers in South Korea who had a forest view had higher job satisfaction and less job stress than workers with no forest view.
2. A Push to Get Out and Move
Living close to vegetation seems to provide an irresistible invitation to get outside and play. “Being near green space is linked with higher levels of physical activity,” James tells Next Avenue.
Jessica Finlay, an environmental gerontologist at the University of Minnesota, says her research found that time in nature contributed to overall well-being. “Natural spaces tended to promote physical activity, such as walking, gardening, golfing, hiking, bicycling. People enjoyed venturing outside, in all different weather and times of the year. A green environment provided a reason to get out the door. It made people feel more active, as well as happier,” she says.
3. A Possible Weapon Against Depression
A large study out of the University of Exeter Medical School in England analyzed data from 10,000 city residents and found that those living closer to urban nature experienced a pronounced “green space effect:” a perceived sense of higher life satisfaction coupled with less mental distress.
Although how exactly nature effects the brain is still unknown. One theory is that it serves as a buffer against depression. A 2015 Stanford University study found that subjects taking a walk in a natural setting had decreased activity in the brain region associated with repetitive, negative thoughts compared with those who walked along a traffic-heavy, four-lane roadway. The study homes in on the mechanics of the brains-on-nature experience: One reason nature makes us feel better is because it serves as a de facto emotional regulator, inhibiting our tendency to brood.
4. ‘A Tangible Way to Feel Less Alone’
According to Finlay's research, natural settings offer a key opportunity for social engagement. “They provided places for multigenerational social interactions and engagement, including planned activities with friends and families as well as impromptu conversations with neighbors,” she says.
The participants said instead of feeling isolated and lonely at home, “they could have a chat with someone on a bench. Or stop and pet a neighbor’s dog. Being outside was a tangible way to feel less alone.”
5. A Potental Link to Longevity
The most dramatic finding may be that simply living close to some degree of nature may prolong your life expectancy. James, the lead author on a 2016 study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital, found that after adjusting for age, socioeconomic status and race, the group whose homes were surrounded by high levels of greenery had a 12 percent lower mortality rate than those in the lowest-vegetation areas.
The nationwide cohort study of over 100,000 nurses used satellite imagery to assess their home’s proximity to vegetation and then combined that information with their medical records. The association between greenery and lower mortality rates was strongest for respiratory and cancer mortality.
Although many of us may have lost touch with the great outdoors, the science keeps pointing to it as a free, effective way to feel better about ourselves and our connection to the world around us.
Now that’s worth opting out for.