Summer Wellness Part 3: Nature's Healing Effects

Being in nature is one of my favorite outdoor activities to do year-round, but especially in the summer. If you also equally enjoy spending time in nature – either at a cottage, camping or simply by going for a walk in the park or a trail – then this article is for you! It turns out that there are scientifically proven reasons as to why so many of us enjoy nature, and feel revitalized and recharged after.

The following nature benefits are from a great (summer) read, called Your Brain on Nature, along with some of points that I’ve found in the research:

BENEFIT #1 – Physical Health benefits (ex. cardiovascular health, pain, immune health, mental health)

Simply seeing green space filled with nature scenes has therapeutic effects. A study showed that forest and nature scenes with water promote alpha wave activity and decrease heart rate (1). A study showed that by being present in nature on its own as well as spending time in nature while doing a neck strengthening/stretching exercise both reduced chronic neck pain (2). Not only can your pain levels decrease by being in nature, but your immune function can also improve. After only 3 days and 2 nights spent in a forest, various immune system cells such as natural killer cells and white blood cells (lymphocytes) were significantly higher afterwards than beforehand (3). Natural killer cells, which are the first immune cells to ward off pathogens and even cancer, were increased for up to 30 days after the trip (3). In case you needed some more obvious information, nature also makes you feel better mentally! In a study, “forest bathers” who went out for eighty minutes each in the morning and afternoon on Saturdays for 1 month, found that their scores for depression, anxiety and fatigue were decreased.

BENEFIT #2 – Cognitive and performance benefits

Being in nature has cognitive benefits in the form of a “reset” button. Our fast paced culture requires us to be mentally sharp all the time, which contributes to cognitive fatigue. Subjects in a study were asked to perform a mentally straining task and then view either a high or low cognitive-restoration picture (high being nature and low being cars, industrial zones etc). Afterwards, the participants were asked to complete another cognitive task. Those that viewed the nature scenes had faster reaction times and a higher number of correct responses. This is also because we are fascinated with nature; fascination engages involuntary attention instead of voluntary, therefore warding off fatigue.

BENEFIT #3 – Healing plant aromas

The sounds, smells and air of nature are also shown to be therapeutic. When in nature, you inhale the aromatic chemicals, phytoncides, released by plants. Studies show that inhaling these chemicals reduces anxiety, lowers cortisol, improves pain threshold and increases the antioxidant defence system (1). The sounds of nature, also promote relaxation. These are obvious – who isn’t in a better mood after smelling a flower to hearing the gentle lull of water?

BENEFIT #4 - Nature = Ultimate exercise terrain

It is now mainstream that exercise provides a multitude of health benefits. Selhub and Logan (2012), state that green exercise is like exercise squared. For example, research showed that a walk in rural areas led to a greater improvement in mental outlook than an urban walk. Natural environments also offer a varying terrain (ex. roots, uneven ground, rocks) which yield more calories burned, different muscles engaged and activate different areas of the brain.

Need I say more? I’m hooked on nature for the above reasons, and many more!

 

References:

1) Selhub and Logan (2012). Your Brain on Nature. The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness, and Vitality. Wiley

2) Kang et al (2015). Releif of Chronic Posterior Neck Pain Depending on the Type of Therapy: Comparison of the Therapeutic Effect of Forest Bathing Alone Versus Bathing With Exercise. Ann Rehabil Med. Dec; 39(6):957-63. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26798610

3) Li Q (2010). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med. Jan;15(1):9-17. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19568839