We are offered many solutions to problems with our physical and mental health, inclding pills and therapy, but spending time in nature is a simple option which research shows really benefits both our physical and mental health. It doesn’t cost a lot or have side effects!
What are the benefits of spending time in nature?
Living close to nature and spending time outside has significant and wide-ranging health benefits according to UK researchers from UEA’s Norwich Medical School. They gathered evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people to see whether nature really does provide a health boost.
Lead author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett, said:
“Spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term wellbeing hasn’t been fully understood.
“We found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits. It reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration.
“People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to greenspace significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol — a physiological marker of stress.
Exposure to daylight is really important for our circadian rhythm. When we see the sun, it helps our brain know what time it is. An article in Lancet Psychiatry says:
Circadian disruption is reliably associated with various adverse mental health and wellbeing outcomes, including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.
We often think about going for a long walk or going on holiday to experience nature. In our busy lives this may seem to be too time-consuming, but research shows a much shorter exposure can be highly beneficial. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology showed that:
“Taking at least twenty minutes out of your day to stroll or sit in a place that makes you feel in contact with nature will significantly lower your stress hormone levels.”
Another study from the University of Exeter showed that:
”Spending at least two hours a week in nature may be a crucial threshold for promoting health and wellbeing.”
The study used data from nearly 20,000 people in England and found that it didn’t matter whether the 120 minutes was achieved in a single visit or over several shorter visits. It also found the 120 minute threshold applied to both men and women, to older and younger adults, across different occupational and ethnic groups, among those living in both rich and poor areas, and even among people with long term illnesses or disabilities.
Most of the world’s population lives in cities, where it is more difficult to experience nature. Greg Bratman, an assistant professor at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences says:
“Thinking about the direct mental health benefits that nature contact provides is important to take into account when planning how to conserve nature and integrate it into our cities.”
How does time spent in nature affect the brain?
A study by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development found that time spent in nature positively affects the brain.
The researchers regularly examined six healthy, middle-aged city dwellers for six months. In total, more than 280 scans were taken of their brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The focus of the study was on self-reported behavior during the last 24 hours and in particular on the hours that participants spent outdoors prior to imaging. In addition, they were asked about their fluid intake, consumption of caffeinated beverages, the amount of time spent outside, and physical activity, in order to see if these factors altered the association between time spent outside and the brain. In order to be able to include seasonal differences, the duration of sunshine in the study period was also taken into account.
Brain scans show that the time spent outdoors by the participants was positively related to gray matter in the right dorsolateral-prefrontal cortex, which is the superior (dorsal) and lateral part of the frontal lobe in the cerebral cortex. This part of the cortex is involved in the planning and regulation of actions as well as what is referred to as cognitive control. In addition, many psychiatric disorders are known to be associated with a reduction in gray matter in the prefrontal area of the brain.
Does time spent in nature mean we care more about nature?
We know that there are many important environmental reasons to look after nature. These and other studies suggest there are also important individual health reasons to protect access to nature. Governments and campaigning organisations exhort us to be more respectful of the environment and to recycle more. Research shows that if we experience the benefits of nature we are more likely to take positive steps to look after it.
Researchers from the University of Plymouth found that:
“Alongside the benefits to public health, those who make weekly nature visits, or feel connected to nature, are also more likely to behave in ways which promote environmental health, such as recycling and conservation activities.”
Lead author of this research, Leanne Martin, said:
“In the context of increasing urbanisation, it is important to understand how engagement with our planet’s natural resources relate to human health and behaviour. Our results suggest that physically and psychologically reconnecting with nature can be beneficial for human health and wellbeing, and at the same time encourages individuals to act in ways which protect the health of the planet.”
Spending time on the internet (like now when you’re reading my blog!) can be entertaining and informative, but don’t neglect your basic, fundamental need for contact with nature. Where’s your favourite nature place? Is it possible to go visit today? It may not be, but there could be a park not too far away – remember research is talking about 20 minutes a day or 2 hours a week.
Making time for nature is making time for your physical and mental health.