Many people are aware of the importance of sunlight for happiness, prevention from diseases and overall wellbeing. The significance of just being out in nature is lost on some people though. Despite this lack of recognition, there is a lot of research that shows that spending time in nature can reduce depression and aggression. It also increases self-esteem, generosity, focus ability, and overall health. Spending time outdoors is a great way to relax and have some fun.
Walking in Nature vs Walking in a Mall
Going for a walk is a common strategy we use to clear our minds. As it turns out, where you go for a walk impacts how well your head can be “cleared.” This makes sense to me intuitively, as going for walks on the beach are always more effective than walking around urban landscapes that are crowded with other people.
In a report called Ecotherapy, The Green Agenda for Mental Health, the British organization called Mind reported their findings from research that looked at how walks in the countryside and walks in a mall affected the mental state of those who are depressed. Not surprisingly, walking in nature was more beneficial.
Mind found that 71 percent of those who went for a walk in green space reported a decreased feeling of depression, compared with 45 percent of those who went for a walk in an indoor shopping mall. Also worth noting is that 22 percent of those who walked in the mall said that their feelings of depression increased.
71 percent of the countryside walkers also said that they felt less tense after their walk. This is contrasted with half of the mall walkers reporting that they felt an increase in tension after their walk. Finally, 90 percent of those who walked outside reported an increase in self-esteem after walking, while 44 percent of the mall walkers reported a decrease in self-esteem.
Green Spaces in Prison, Hospitals, and Cities
Mind has also written about the positive effect green views have on prisoners. A study of prisoners in Michigan found that those who had a cell overlooking farmland and trees had 24% fewer sick visits than those who had cells looking out at the prison yard.
Green views also appear to be beneficial for hospital patients. A 10 year study looking at post-operation patients in Pennsylvania found that those who had hospital rooms that looked out at trees had shorter hospital stays, needed less painkillers and medication, and nurses wrote less negative comments about them.
It really is amazing how important a view of nature can be. Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign interviewed women who lived in housing projects in Chicago. The women were randomly assigned to rooms that had views of green spaces or views of empty courtyards. The researchers found that the women who had views of nature had fewer aggressive conflicts, procrastinated less on major goals, and were less likely to think that their problems were impossible to solve.
Another study found that office workers who had green views enjoyed their work more, were healthier, and had greater life satisfaction.
Walking in Nature Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Fresh air helps to release tension and stress. It’s easier to clear our heads and free ourselves from our “handcuff thoughts”. You know, those little internal messages full of worry, devaluation or negative anticipation. It allows us to take a step back from ourselves and our worries. Stress is not an illness in itself, but it often plays an important role in the onset of many illnesses. If you are anxious by nature, here are some tips that can help you manage your stress.
Studies show a link between time spent in nature and stress reduction. Just a few minutes in green spaces has an effect on the level of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. It has been found that cortisol levels decrease after spending time in nature. And by lowering stress and anxiety, you reduce the risk of depression!
Read also: How to Treat Performance Anxiety in Athletes
Nature, Values, and Generosity
There has also been some really interesting research done on how nature affects one’s values. A team of researchers from the University of Rochester showed images of nature and images of urban landscapes to 370 people to see if the different settings of the pictures would have an impact on their behavior. The city and nature images were matched for color, lighting, complexity, and layout in an effort to reduce confounding factors. The same research team also assigned different groups of people to rooms with plants and rooms without plants.
Interestingly, study participants who were in a room with plants or shown pictures of a natural setting were more likely to value closeness and community. Those were were in a room without the plants or who were shown pictures of urban settings were more likely to value wealth and fame.
The University of Rochester team also gave the participants five dollars and told them they could either keep the money or give it to another anonymous participant, in which case that participant would get an additional five dollars. The research subjects who were exposed to the pictures of nature or were in the rooms with plants were more likely to give away their money than those who were not exposed to natural images.
Green Space, Health, and Mortality
Wealth and socioeconomic status have been shown to have an impressive correlation with health and lower rates of death. One study from the UK however has thrown a small wrench into that research with their finding that the health differences normally seen in those who are wealthy and those who are not wealthy disappeared when access to nature was factored in.
Researchers have also found that life satisfaction improves when people move from a less green area to a more green area. This improvement holds even when the researchers corrected for income, employment, marital status, health, housing time and local area factors such as crime rates.
A 2002 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health makes things even more interesting. The study of Japanese 80-85 year olds found that those without access to nature had a higher rate of death than those who did have access to nature. This correlation also held true even after socioeconomic status was accounted for.
Nature and Ability to Focus
So far we’ve covered the physical and psychological health effects that nature seems to have on us. There are also some studies that take a peek at how nature affects our performance.
Swedish researchers wanted to examine the effect nature has on attention span and the ability to focus. To do this they put study participants through a series of mentally-fatiguing tasks and then randomly assigned them to groups who either took a walk through nature, took an urban walk, or sat quietly while listening to music or reading. After the break, the study participants were tested on their proofreading ability. The group who went for a walk in nature did best on the proofreading task in addition to reporting less anger and more positivity.
The same researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the Chicago housing study cited above also tested the attention span of children who lived in green areas and children who lived in more grey or brown areas. They found that the kids who lived around nature had a greater attention span, were better able to delay gratification and control impulses.
Those scientists also examined how nature impacted kids who were diagnosed with ADHD. The study found that kids behaved best after spending time outdoors in green settings. This relationship between time in nature and better behavior also held for all socioeconomic classes.
Read also: Vitamin D and Kids – What You Need to Know
Eye health is another reason to get outdoors. A study of primary school children in Australia found a correlation between time spent outdoors and better vision. Of the 2,000 children tracked in the study, those who spent more time outdoors significantly reduced their risk of developing myopia. These results suggest that playing outdoors may have a protective effect on children’s vision.
These results are surprising, as the protective effect was not observed in children who played sports indoors. Exposure to fresh air and sunlight is more protective of growing eyes than equivalent indoor physical activity.
It is difficult for children to see images clearly in the dimmer indoor light. The eyes have to change their shape to adapt. The more abundant outdoor light saves children’s eyes from having to make extra efforts. Kill two birds with one stone: when it comes to encouraging your children to have fun and move around, send them outside and protect their eye health.
Bringing it all Together
That was a lot of different research all mashed together in one article! It felt appropriate to put it all together though, because the benefits of spending time in nature are so far-reaching.
How much does one need to spend in nature to enjoy these benefits? I am of the opinion that the more the better, but one 2010 study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology found that just five minutes spent in a natural environment was enough to significantly boost self-esteem!
If you don’t live near any green spaces, you can still take advantage of this research. A scientist from Texas A&M found that Swedish hospital patients in intensive care were able to reduce their anxiety and need for pain medication by looking at pictures of nature. This in conjunction with some of the other research I wrote about earlier in the article shows that images of nature and indoor plants are surprisingly powerful.
So to sum it all up, spending time in nature can be super important for your health. Although getting some sun is also very beneficial, good ol’ mother nature shouldn’t be forgotten. Nature can mean desert, beach, forest, mountain, or any other natural setting. Just make sure to get out in whatever form of nature you have surrounding you!