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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Free Healing Is a Benefit of Nature

Research shows that getting outside is not just a nice break from the office or home. Your body gets remarkable health benefits from nature.

A recent study done by the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter found that people who spent a minimum of two hours every week outdoors in a natural environment were much more likely to say they had good health and psychological well-being than their counterparts who did not. And spending less time outside, whether in parks or other natural environments, didn’t just have a lesser effect; it had no benefit at all. 

The study included 20,000 people from all walks of life, including those from different ethnic groups, with varying income levels, and those with chronic illnesses and disabilities. The effect held true across the board. Although scientists knew that getting outside was a boost for health, they hadn’t known how much time was enough. While the study showed a hard minimum, it didn’t matter whether the time per week was achieved with several shorter sessions or one two-hour chunk.

Scientific Benefits of Being Outdoors 

There are many ways that going outside can benefit health. Research supports all of the following statements about the upsides of stepping into nature.

  • At least for children, outdoor activity protects the eyes and reduces the risk of developing nearsightedness. 
  • Walks in green environments improve mood and self-esteem, especially among the mentally ill. 
  • Time outdoors lowers blood pressure. 
  • Going outside improves your attention span and ability to focus. New studies suggest it may help kids with ADHD. 
  • Creativity spikes after time outside. 
  • Preliminary studies suggest forest exposure may stimulate the production of anti-cancer proteins. 
  • There is a strong positive correlation between green space and health for urban residents. 
  • Getting outside in sunlight gives people vitamin D, which many lack. 
  • Outside exposure can lessen the effects of seasonal affective disorder. 
  • Being outdoors boosts energy.

Lyme disease even from gardening?

One caution in the outdoors comes from the prevalence of Lyme disease, a potentially disabling infection of the nervous system and joints. It is caused by the blacklegged tick, which can spread the disease when it bites. They are active in temperatures down to the mid-30s, so be aware the ticks are out now. Three-fourths of cases take place not in the deep woods, but in backyards.

Ticks prefer wet, cool places with abundant shade. Stone walls, wood piles and brushy areas are favorite hideouts. Ornamental vegetation and lawns are the least likely to contain ticks. Create a tick-resistant garden by using a three-foot barrier of wood chips or rock between the lawn and brushy areas. Keep wood piles away from the house or put them atop a wood chip barrier. Remove leaf litter and keep lawns mowed. Locate play sets in open, sunny areas. Prune surrounding trees if needed. Since deer are a host, erect an 8-foot-high fence around the garden or plant deer-resistant perennials to discourage their presence. 

Time Outdoors Gaining Research Momentum

“When I wrote 'Last Child in the Woods' in 2005, this wasn’t a hot topic,” said Richard Louv, a journalist in San Diego whose book is largely credited with triggering a naturist movement and who first used the term Nature Deficit Disorder. “This subject was virtually ignored by the academic world. I could find 60 studies that were good studies. Now it’s approaching and about to pass 1,000 studies, and they point in one direction: Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.”

Increasingly, researchers are studying the topic and using it for urban planning. “We have entered the urban century, with two-thirds of humanity projected to be living in cities by 2050,” said Gretchen Daily, director of the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University. “There is an awakening underway today to many of the values of nature and the risks and costs of its loss. This new work can help inform investments in livability and sustainability of the world’s cities.”

The Children & Nature Network, founded by Louv and others, tracks much of this research but lists summaries of abstracts on its website. Scandinavian “forest schools” have found a home in the U.S. as more education takes place outdoors … an increase of 500 percent since 2012, according to Louv. 

Even health care providers have begun prescribing the back-to-nature paradigm. One organization, Park RX America, founded by Robert Zarr of Unity Healthcare in Washington, D.C., has a mission “to decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness, and foster environmental stewardship, by virtue of prescribing Nature during the routine delivery of healthcare by a diverse group of health care professionals.”

The Trust for Public Lands recently completed a multi-year project to map parks in the U.S. with the goal of finding places that lack parkland. “We’ve mapped 14,000 communities, 86 percent of the nation, and looked at who does and doesn’t live within a 10-minute walk of a park,” said Adrian Benepe, a senior vice president of the organization. The Trust has a Ten Minute Walk initiative involving mayors across the U.S. to ensure everyone has access to a park within a short walk from where they live.

Businesses are taking note as well. They have become aware that attracting good employees requires more than a competitive salary, and are designing offices with large windows and access to trees and open space. “It’s needed to attract a skilled work force,” says Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix. “Young people are demanding high-quality outdoor experiences.”

More Than a Visual Experience

What makes time in the natural world restorative versus time spent elsewhere? Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have been studying this question since the 1970s, and they’ve come up with Attention Restoration Theory. While bustling city environments, work spaces and the like require effortful attention, they theorize that natural environments let people focus more broadly and with less effort, leading to a more relaxed body and mind. 

The Japanese have long advocated “forest bathing,” or walking in the woods. Researchers believe that smelling natural aerosols in the trees elevates levels of Natural Killer cells in the immune system that battle tumors and infections. One study showed that exposing people to essential cedar oil while they slept in a hotel room also caused a spike in the same cells.

In an age where climate change is causing significant anxiety, the antidote may be, in part, to go out in nature. 


Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors