As we learn more and more about healing and disease prevention, study after study suggests that one of the most powerful sources of health and happiness may be found in own backyards. In fact, scientists are finding that spending time in nature can support mental and physical health in all kinds of ways! Here are seven of them:
Spending time outdoors keeps your immune system strong
You know what they say, a little dirt don’t hurt! In fact, it may heal. Research suggests that early exposure to a wide variety of bacteria — from grass, dust and dirt — could create a stronger immune system later in life. And that’s not the only way nature helps your body to fight illness! Getting a moderate amount of sun can boost your vitamin D levels, which are crucial for a strong immune system.
Living near trees makes us happy — and healthy!
University of Chicago researchers discovered that simply living in areas with lots of trees can make a person both mentally and physically healthier. In fact, the study found that the more trees a street had, the healthier its residents were. The researchers cited several reasons for this: cleaner air (trees filter out pollution), the possibility that nearby trees may make people more likely to get outside and exercise, and that trees themselves may be naturally calming to humans.
Spending time in nature increases creativity
I’ve noticed that whenever I go for a walk in nature, a solution to a problem I’ve been contemplating seems to always make itself known without any effort on my part. What I thought was my own unique experience has actually been studied by psychologists. Walking — both indoors and outdoors — has been shown to give creativity a boost. Studies also suggest that nature itself can inspire creativity. In fact, a 2012 study demonstrated that hikers became 50 percent more creative after spending four days in nature. However, I doubt you have to spend four days hiking to get those creative juices flowing; my walks usually only last half an hour.
Nature gives us an energy boost
Creativity isn’t the only trait nature enhances. Research suggests that time spent in nature may also increase both physical and mental energy. For the series of studies, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers led participants through exercises like 15-minute walks through indoor and outdoor settings, various visualizations of natural and non-nature related imagery, and viewing images of buildings and natural landscapes. The researchers found that out of all the different experiments, participants consistently felt more energetic when they spent time in nature or visualized themselves doing so. This is an amazing finding, as it suggests that even imagining natural surroundings allows us to benefit from nature.
Spending time outdoors may help treat depression and anxiety
Studies on what happens to our brains when we spend time outdoors suggest that eco-therapy might be an effective prescription for certain mental health conditions. A Stanford University study, for example, found that a walk in nature resulted in decreased activity in an area of the brain associated with rumination — or repetitive thoughts focused on negative emotions — a key symptom of depression. Lead author of the study, Gregory Bratman, also led a previous study that found spending time in nature to have a positive effect on mood, and to lessen the symptoms of anxiety.
Nature supports faster healing
A study on patients who had recently undergone surgery found that patients with a view of trees healed faster and needed less pain medication than patients without one. The study suggests that the “nature cure” might be just as potent for physical healing as it is for mental healing.
Spending time in nature may help you sleep
A 2015 study found that men and seniors who have access to natural spaces sleep better than those who don’t. The study looked at over 255,000 US adults and found that participants who had access to nature slept poorly fewer than seven nights per month, while those in more urban settings slept poorly up to 29 nights per month.
Unfortunately, most Americans spend between 80 and 99 percent of their time indoors.
So even though nature is one of the best healers when it comes to both mental and physical health, most of us aren’t really taking the time to get these benefits. Can you imagine how much healthier and happier we’d be if we were? Let’s all try to set aside some time to connect with nature — even in cold weather. This can be done through walks, hikes, taking a day trip to a beautiful location, or just by sitting in a park or your yard and enjoying the fresh air.
Teresa is a freelance writer and yoga teacher currently living in Sri Lanka. She loves to write about policies, ideas, and practices that promote a healthy planet and create healthy people.