Nature can have surprising benefits for both your physical and mental health. H&W explains why everyone should go green
What would you do if your GP’s prescription to your insomnia, high blood pressure, depression or weight gain was simply to go outside? Would you consider that the power of nature – something you’ve likely already embraced when it comes to your beauty regime and diet – could positively benefit your physical or mental health?
If the answer’s no, it’s time you changed your perspective. Park prescriptions are already a thing in the US, connecting patients to parks near them to walk, sit and just be. And the proof that this type of treatment works is in the latest research – a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that walking in nature can reduce blood flow to the part of the brain associated with brooding. Similarly, British researchers have identified that natural settings encourage people to feel less angry, tired and sad, and it’s even been found that looking at trees on a hospital ward can promote faster recovery following injury.
“Natural environments contain chemical and biological materials that are good for health,” says Dr Adrian Harris, counsellor and ecotherapist (adrianharris.org). “Many plants give off antimicrobial compounds (known as phytoncides) that reduce blood pressure and boost immune function. The air in forests, mountains and near moving water carries high concentrations of negative ions which reduce depression, while the sights and sounds of nature reduce sympathetic nervous activity (the fight response) and increase parasympathetic activity (the rest response). Simply put, the sympathetic system primes us for action, while the parasympathetic is related to calmer states. As a result, contact with nature can lower pulse rates and reduce levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress).”
And it would seem that we’re gradually cottoning on. Ecotherapy – an umbrella term for the likes of forest bathing, horticultural therapy and walk and talk counselling – is increasing in popularity. It can be enjoyed anywhere, regardless of whether you live in a rural setting or an urban environment, and it is accessible to everyone because, typically, it’s free. With the average person in Britain spending a mere eight percent of their time outdoors, isn’t it time we all reconnected with the natural world?
Still not convinced? Here’s how to benefit from green therapy, whatever challenges you face.
It’s hard not to let worries drift away when staring up at a canopy of leaves and it’s perhaps why the latest wellbeing retreats are offering forest bathing (A.K.A. lying on your back surrounded by trees) to their guests. “We know that being outdoors can help boost mood and strengthen mental wellbeing,” says Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind (mind.org.uk). “Getting away from modern life and into a relaxing outside space allows us to switch off from everyday pressures, and the colours, sounds and smells of the great outdoors can stimulate our senses in a way that urban environments can’t. Plus, Mindcommissioned research from the University of Essex shows spending time outside [for example, walking through a wood] can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety.”
“Where we exercise seems to influence our perception of effort,” says Dr Mike Rogerson of the University of Essex’s Green Exercise team. “We’ve found that people feel like exercise is easier outdoors compared to indoors.” And it’s not only your cardiovascular fitness that will benefit. According to Anthony Mayatt, personal trainer and owner of Breathe Fitness (breathefitness.co.uk), which specialises in outdoor training, getting active in nature allows you to focus more on performing functional movements such as crawling, climbing, running and jumping, which are better for your muscles and joints. Also, weather-depending, you’ll tick off your RDA of the sunshine vitamin D, needed for strong bones, mood regulation and a healthy immune system.
This is uplifting news for anyone who’s ever caught themselves wondering if they left the oven on. When a team from Stanford University randomly assigned 60 study participants the task of walking in a natural or an urban environment, it was the former that elicited the greatest cognitive benefits, including increased working memory performance. The added bonus? A meta-analysis by the University of East Anglia, involving more than 290 million people worldwide, has concluded that spending time in nature reduces your risk of type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death.
A staggering 11.7 million working days are lost annually due to stress, anxiety and depression. However, spending time outdoors can significantly reduce your levels of salivary cortisol, a physiological marker of stress. Stephen recommends making it a social affair, which will provide an opportunity to talk through problems with others, or simply laugh and enjoy a break from family and work. Time to find those green fingers, then. “Spending time in nature can buffer the negative impacts of stressful events,” says Dr Rogerson. “When people walk from a built-up urban area into an urban park or green space, their brains quickly start showing activity patterns that we see during relaxation and meditation. This is possibly because our species has lived and thrived in natural environments for almost the entirety of our existence.”
If you’re one of the 25 percent of the UK population who experience sleepless nights on a regular basis, it might not be your bedtime but your lunchtime routine that needs an update. According to findings from recent research into heart rate variability (the variation in time between heart beats) from the Green Exercise Research Team, daytime walks in green spaces can lead to more restful sleep. So, step away from your desk and get some fresh air.
Have you got a problem that just won’t go away, no matter what you do? A research project found that four days in nature, without access to digital technology, increased performance on a creativity and problem-solving task by 50 percent. “That huge increase came partly from the exposure to nature, which is relaxing, inspiring and mood enhancing,” says Dr Harris. “However, the effect was boosted by a decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology.” Enough said.