Our disconnect from nature even has a name: Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by American author and journalist Richard Louv. He argues that, as we move farther away from nature, our list of mental and physical ailments grows. And while the research he conducted focused mainly on the effects on children, the negative impact — things like attention difficulties, obesity, and mental health issues — will no doubt follow them into adulthood.
Over the years, many studies have confirmed that nature is indeed good for us. But why? Science tells us that time spent in the great outdoors literally changes our brains in a positive way. Perhaps this is why people in Japan have been participating in a phenomenon called shinrin-yoku, loosely translated as forest bathing, since the 1980s. Contrary to what the term bathing may imply, there is no water involved. You simply need to head to the forest and “dive in with all your senses“ to reap its many health benefits.
Your brain on nature
We all know that a short walk in nature can have a tremendously positive impact on our mental health. But let’s dig a little deeper to explore these positive effects and take a look at what’s going on inside our heads.
Boost your mood
Time in nature has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and feelings of anxiety. Add water to the environment and the mental health benefits only go up. And “green exercise” (i.e., getting active outdoors) is even more beneficial since being active is yet another way to enhance mood. All this is not to say that your current treatment plan should be replaced by the great outdoors, but time in nature is certainly a good way to supplement counseling, antidepressants, or other existing therapies.
Studies have shown that spending time in nature helps lower cortisol levels (a.k.a., the stress hormone) and slows the heart rate. If you have a particularly stressful job, even 20 minutes outside is enough to de-stress naturally. Commit to taking a walk through the park during your lunch break, and let the sunlight, the scenery, or both do their job of sending “happiness hormones,” like serotonin and dopamine, to your brain.
Fight mental fatigue
It’s not abnormal for our attention to wane at some point during the workday. Oftentimes, something as simple as a change in scenery can help our brain fog lift. But instead of walking to a nearby cafe to grab your fifth coffee of the day, try heading to the park instead. Two separate experiments demonstrated that the sort of “modest” attention required when in nature helps fight mental fatigue by restoring our attention span, mostly because our brains aren’t on high alert (think: speeding cars and bicycle lanes) as is required in an urban environment.
Your body benefits, too
When we talk about the positive impacts of nature, the focus tends to be on our mental health. But did you know that regularly interacting with nature can be beneficial for our physical health too? Below are just some examples of the way time spent in nature can benefit your body.
Boost your immune system
Remember forest bathing? Well, a study done in Japan confirmed that surrounding ourselves in nature as infrequently as once a month can give our immune system the boost it needs to stay healthy over the long term. We can thank our body’s cellular activity for that! See, when in nature, natural killer cells (i.e., the ones that can help destroy tumor cells) become more active, which indicates that our immune system is strengthening on a cellular level too.
Help prevent cancer
It’s still early days, but results of another Japanese study seem to show that time spent in the forest can actually result in the production of anti-cancer proteins. And then there’s a little something called terpenes — a substance emitted through trees, leaves, bushes, mushrooms, and more! We breathe them in during forest walks, and even absorb them through our skin. Not to fear, this is a good thing. Scientists have reason to believe they help our body defend against illness, and possibly prevent cancer.
Protect your eyes
Barring the obvious (more time in nature = less screen time), there are other ways that the great outdoors can positively impact eye health. Studies conducted in both Australia and Taiwan concluded that time spent outdoors lowered the incidence of near-sightedness in youth. And, of course, for those of us sitting in front of a computer for 7+ hours a day, increasing the amount of time we spend outside can reduce associated symptoms, like blurred vision and eye strain.
A final (forest) thought!
If you can’t get outside on the regular, take advantage of the next best thing: the view from your window. (Or, if you don’t have an office with a view, try hanging a painting of some beautiful scenery on your wall.) A study in South Korea showed that simply looking at nature can help reduce stress and improve job satisfaction. That’s the miracle of nature!