As our lives grow more sedentary, we are spending less and less time outdoors. Screens of all types dominate our attention, and we spend so much time focused on a piece of technology or a gadget that we often do not realize how quickly time goes by. How often have we spent time on social media, only to realize we have just dedicated the last hour to following other people’s posts?
And, while there is nothing wrong with that, the result is that we do not spend much time outdoors. In fact, polls have shown that 93% of Americans live a majority of their lives indoors (Loewe, 2017).
We are spending more time indoors than previous generations. Polls also show that although 70% of mothers polled played outside when they were children themselves, 26% say that their kids spend equal time outdoors (Loewe, 2017). It is easy to understand why this is so, given how much technology dominates our lives.
Yet, we all know that being outdoors is reinvigorating. If we need to clear our heads we head outside. If we need to refresh a space, we open the windows. If we need to feel alive, we go to a park. When we spend too much time indoors we feel stuffy and stale, and search for a breath of fresh air.
There is a reason for that. Several people have researched the importance of being in nature. This is what they say.
Spending Time in Nature Reduces Stress
Getting exposure to natural environments has a positive effect on physical and mental health. There is evidence that spending time in a forest lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels. It also decreases sympathetic nervous activity, which engages when we respond to stress, and increases parasympathetic nervous activity, which engages when we are calm and relaxed. It also increases immune function (Song et al., 2014).
A study in Japan indicated that walking in an urban park had more beneficial effects to the health than walking in a city area, including reduced anxiety, fatigue, sympathetic nervous activity and tension; and increased parasympathetic nervous activity and positive moods (Song et al., 2014). This study was conducted in the spring, and a similar study conducted in the winter had comparable results on all factors except on sympathetic nervous system activity. In other words, parasympathetic nervous activity increased, heart rate decrease, and moods improved during winter walks, but sympathetic nervous activity did not decrease (Song et al., 2014). Perhaps something about the cold weather keeps our fight-or-flight response in gear. Still, this indicates that spending time in green spaces has positive physiological and psychological effects on us, and can confer effects similar to what we feel after a massage or a yoga session.
In a similar study conducted in Finland, participants who walked in the woods or in an urban park for 20 minutes relieved stress more significantly than participants who walked in the city for the same amount of time (Suttie, 2016).
Still another study took participants on either a 50-minute nature walk or a 50-minute urban walk, and found that those who walked in nature had less anxiety, fewer negative thoughts, more positive emotions, and improved memory (Suttie, 2016).
Spending Time in Nature Makes us Better People
A journalist by the name of Florence Williams spent time studying the effect that nature has on us, and found that not only does nature reduce stress, but it also makes us more productive and energetic (Loewe, 2017). It can also increase empathy, compassion, and a sense of connection to our community, and make us better listeners.
Other people have found that spending time in nature affects our brains and our behavior, and helps to reduce anxiety, negative thoughts, and stress, while increasing creativity, focus, and connections with others (Suttie, 2016).
David Strayer, Ruth Atchley, and Paul Atchley believe that spending time in nature allows our brains to make connections and inspire creativity in new ways. They studied people who spent 4 days hiking in nature and found that the hikers who had returned from nature were able to solve puzzles involving creativity 47% more successfully than people who were waiting to go out on the hike. Spending time with other people and experiencing camaraderie also played a factor in the results (Suttie, 2016).
In other studies, people exposed to images of nature or to plants were found to express more trust and generosity (Suttie, 2016).
Although it is easy to spend our time in front of a screen, even a 20-minute walk amongst greenery can have a positive effect on us, helping us reduce stress and anxiety, and be more creative, have less negative thoughts, and more focus. And the best part is that it does not cost us anything, other than just making an effort to step outdoors.
Loewe, E. (2017). Nature can make you less stressed & more energized. MindBodyGreen, Retrieved on October 23, 2017 from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/the-science-behind-why-nature-is-so-restorative?utm_term=pos-2&utm_source=mbg&utm_medium=email&utm_content=&utm_campaign=171010
Song, C., Ikei, H., Igarashi, M., Miwa, M., Takagaki, M., & Miyazaki, Y. (2014). Physiological and psychological responses of young males during spring-time walks in urban parks. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 33, 8-15. doi:10.1186/1880-6805-33-8.
Suttie, J. (2016). How nature boosts kindness, happiness, and creativity. Mindful. Retrieved on October 23, 2017 from https://www.mindful.org/how-nature-boosts-kindness-happiness-and-creativity/