I am such a big fan of the great outdoors. Living in Boulder, it’s almost impossible not to be. Some of the biggest things that draw people out here are the stunning skiing and the closeness to many of America’s most awe-inspiring National Parks. I am so drawn to nature that I decided to incorporate many of Colorado’s unique natural elements in the Hoppy & Poppie PinkCheeks series. But a big part of why so many people like myself are drawn to nature is because nature offers us many healing benefits to both our physical and mental well being. There’s a lot more that the benefits of nature have to offer us in terms of contributing to our overall wellness so let’s dive into today’s article!
The Physiological Benefits of Nature
I am a firm believer in the importance of scientific research backing any claims I make. This is to ensure that there is some evidence behind everything I say, as much of the criticism of EI and Wellness is around the vagueness of many of their claims. That is why I was so happy to see that there are legitimate physiological improvements to the body when spending time in nature.
Something new I learned while researching this article is about phytoncides. Plants and trees release these chemicals, which contain antimicrobial and antifungal properties that help them fight diseases and pests. The amazing thing is that they also work on humans! From Time.com:
“Li’s research at Nippon Medical School shows that when people walk through a forest, they inhale phytoncides that increase their number of natural killer (NK) cells–a type of white blood cell that supports the immune system and is associated with a lower risk of cancer.”
These chemicals increase our bodies’ NK cells, which specifically attack cancer-causing tumors and cells. This means that by simply existing in nature, you’re improving your long-term health by decreasing your risk of cancer. Another way nature benefits us physically is its effect on blood pressure. Spending time in the forest significantly alleviates high blood pressure through reducing stress levels. From that same article:
“In one early study, Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a forest-therapy expert and researcher at Chiba University in Japan, found that people who spent 40 minutes walking in a cedar forest had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is involved in blood pressure and immune-system function, compared with when they spent 40 minutes walking in a lab. ‘I was surprised,’ Miyazaki recalls. ‘Spending time in the forest induces a state of physiologic relaxation.’“
This sense of relaxation should be no surprise to the nature lovers reading this. During my busy week, there is nothing more relaxing than my weekend hikes in the forest or rides on my bicycle through nature. It is a feeling that too many people lack in their daily lives either due to lack of time or lack of access to green, natural spaces and it takes a toll on both our health and our outlook on life. And nature has more to offer us than simply physiological benefits (as if that weren’t enough!).
Nature As Teacher
While I believe that the physical benefits of nature are spectacular, I don’t want these to distract from the mental health benefits and the holistic benefits of nature as well. Nature serves as a deeply inspiring and important muse for many artists and thinkers alike because they understand how much we can learn from nature. This is all despite the fact that many societies have become further and further removed from nature as time passes.
One example of human inspiration from nature and the coevolution between the natural world and our technological marvels is in the field of biomimicry. From Mindful.org:
“The field of biomimicry, or biometrics, observes the way “nature uses diversity, redundancy, decentralization, and self-renewal and self-repair to foster resiliency,” as the Biomimicry Institute puts it. Japanese engineers designed the Shinkansen Bullet Train’s nose after the narrow, cone-shaped beak of the kingfisher, for instance, mimicking the bird’s ability to soundlessly dive into water and solving the train’s problem of creating sonic booms as it rushed into tunnels.”
In nature, change is opportunity and evolution is everything. When we as humans take these lessons and implement them into our lives, technologies, and mindsets, we find new and interesting ways to adapt to change. Nature is a collaborative environment and it reminds us that we need a strong support system to get through rough times. Nature also gives us a chance to reflect, rest, and revitalize and approach our problems in a new light.
Another thing I like to point to is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, it’s a chart that ranks the many needs on the road to feeling true fulfillment. At the bottom of the pyramid are simple things like food, shelter, and clothes. As you go up the pyramid you encounter things like career fulfillment, loving relationships, and a welcoming community. But at the very top of the pyramid, Maslow says we need “transcendent” or deeply fulfilling experiences. These can come from a variety of different places including spiritual experiences, fulfilling our deepest goals and ambitions, and experiencing the awe of nature. If you’re familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature or Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, then you’ll know just how deeply fulfilling nature can be.
Mental Benefits of Nature
If you want an example of how beneficial nature is for our mental health, this alarming fact may be all you need. Nature is so good at improving our mental health that even fake nature provides many of the same benefits. When I say fake nature, I’m not talking about small parks or a couple houseplants, I’m talking about artificial images, sounds, and smells of nature. I never could have imagined that nature could be this incredible, but the results speak for themselves.
These facts have all culminated in nature becoming a priority in how our future unfolds. From Yale:
“Not surprisingly, urban dwellers are far more likely to have anxiety and mood disorders than people who live in rural areas. That’s the bad news, since about 80% of Americans live in cities. The good news is that a small 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting, such as a forest or a nature park, were less likely to ruminate–a hallmark of depression and anxiety–and had lower activity in an area of the brain linked to depression than people who walked in an urban area. “Accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” the study authors write.”
As you can see, the overwhelming evidence of nature’s benefits is changing the way we imagine our future. The research is so conclusive that cities are now being designed and redesigned with this in mind and spaces too far away from parks are being reprioritized to have greater access to nature. With 2/3rds of humanity set to live in cities by 2050, the need for a return to nature has never been greater. The sweet spot seems to be about 2 hours per week in green spaces in order to alleviate some of these mental health issues, but of course there’s no harm in increasing that number.
Whether you live in the middle of the city or in the middle of nowhere, being outdoors and in green nature reminds us where we come from. We remember how important it is to be there for each other and establish our own communities of support. I’d like to end on this quote from Mindful:
“We too can apply nature’s wisdom to improve our mental, emotional, and physical well-being, learning to adapt, collaborate, and renew ourselves so that we not only live more sustainably on earth, but also—like a towering lodgepole pine—we flourish in the face of adversity.”