How nature improves your health

It can reduce stress, shorten hospital stays, and so much more. Dr. Scott Lear explains
A mother and child admiring the mountain view.

As the days grow shorter and cooler, it can be tempting to spend your downtime on a couch in front of a screen. But this is the perfect time to get outside into woods or fields or a city park, especially as the pandemic brings continuing uncertainty and anxiety. 

Being in nature is good for your health and wellbeing. 

For most of us, if we’re outside, it likely means we’re getting some physical activity. In an eight-country study, people who lived close to a park were more active. And access to greenspace (parks, fields, forests) has been associated with less obesity, a lower chance of early death and even positive thinking.

More calm, less stress

But the benefits of nature appear to be about more than activity. In Japan, the act of “forest bathing” has been practiced for decades. And it doesn’t rely on being active, but just immersing yourself in the forest. Compared to being in the city, a three-day trip in the forest resulted in increases in anti-cancer cells.

 

As little as two hours per week in nature can lead to better health.

Dr. Scott Lear

Not all of us have the time to spend three days in a forest; the good news is, you don’t have to. As little as two hours per week in parks, fields and forests can lead to better health and wellbeing.

Being in nature has a calming effect and can result in a lower occurrence of stress, depression and anxiety. It’s also been associated with improved learning. These lower stress levels may explain, in part, the healthier birth outcomes in people with more greenspace in their neighbourhood. These neighbourhoods also tend to have greater community cohesion and less crime.

Even virtual nature helps

There are a number of possible reasons why being in nature is good for us. Trees are known to give off compounds called phytoncides, which may have health benefits for us too. In addition, levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) are reduced with as little as 20 minutes in a city park. Air pollution, which is associated with adverse health outcomes including heart disease, is lower in areas with more trees and greener environments.

But those reasons don’t explain why looking at pictures of trees and plants can reduce stress, blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension. Further studies have found using virtual reality to view forests also reduces cortisol levels. 

Take a hike and call me in the morning

Connecting with nature is also good for patients recovering in the hospital. While ancient hospitals and monasteries commonly had gardens, the hospitals we know now are comparatively devoid of them. 

In one 1984 study, researchers assigned a small group of patients to a room with a view of trees and a garden, while others had a window facing a brick wall. Those patients with the view of nature had faster recovery and shorter hospital stays. In the United Kingdom, at least, hospital gardens are making a comeback along with doctors writing out nature prescriptions for their patients.

So as the weather gets cooler, spend some time walking, jogging, cycling, or just being outside.

 

Dr. Scott LearDr. Scott Lear is a leading researcher in the prevention and management of heart disease. He holds the Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, and he is a professor in the faculty of health sciences and the department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Lear also lives with heart disease himself. Follow his blog at drscottlear.com.

 

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