Why Nature?

“There is just something about being outdoors that makes you feel good.”

I think most of us can agree that this is a fair statement. But what makes being in nature so good? Is it because of what’s in the air, the smell, the scenery, the sound? Research has shown that there are multiple scientific factors that contribute to that “feel good” feeling.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” What does this mean? It means that health is multidimensional.

Studies have shown how surrounding oneself in the forest and encompassing all the senses have significant benefits on the body   ̶  physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Specifically, some of these studies in Japan embrace the approach “Shinrin-yoku” (or forest bathing). Comprehensively, the measurements evaluated during the studies were: blood pressure, pulse rate, salivary cortisol levels (stress hormone), heart rate variability related to the sympathetic (fight or flight response) and parasympathetic (controlling homeostasis) nervous activity, hemoglobin concentration, blood-glucose levels, and natural killer cell activity. Some studies also added surveys or questionnaires to determine mood changes. The research differed for participants on physiological responses according to their specific focus by using the following guidelines: walking or sitting, randomized participants, participants with hypertension, participants with non-insulin-dependent diabetes, age, or gender.  Through the varied research, the same results occurred  ̶  all measurements either increased or decreased (beneficially) from walking or sitting in the forest as compared to the control groups that were based in an urban environment (walking on the sidewalk, looking at buildings).

Though there are significant benefits to being surrounded by nature, you don’t have to be in the middle of the forest to experience these benefits! Research has shown that visual stimulation, such as plants in the work place or nature scenes on computer screensavers, increases the state of relaxation, alleviates stress, boosts creativity, and enhances focus. Olfactory (smell) stimulation could be a factor in this since smelling certain essential oils or fresh flora has shown similar results to visual stimulation research.  Inhaling phytoncides (antibacterial and antifungal chemicals emitted by plants) has shown to increase a persons’ natural killer cells, therefore boosting the immune system. Having plants in hospitals or window spaces with exposure to sun/greenery have shown to improve mood, increase recovery time, decrease hospitalization time, and ameliorate the ability to cope with chronic illness in patients. Gardening has shown to relieve stress, reduce severity of depression, reduce the onset and severity of dementia, increase self-esteem and decrease hostility of inmates, and reduce crime in neighborhoods with community gardening.

Research in Finland has suggested that just 5 hours A MONTH can help your overall well-being. If you think about it, a typical 30-day month contains 720 hours. I think ALL of us can spare, at the very least, 5 hours a month (and hopefully many more) outside in nature. It doesn’t have to be running or biking; it can just be sitting and taking in the moment, releasing the stresses of everyday life.  Until recently, humans have evolved in the natural environment for thousands of year, so there is no wonder why we have a predisposition to be surrounded by nature or have a plant sitting on the work desk to “feel better.”

What else do plants provide? Trees filter the air by removing carbon dioxide and air pollutants, while producing oxygen that we need; filter pollutants and chemicals from the water in the soil; prevent flooding; reduce storm water run-off and erosion; help conserve energy by absorbing heat in urban areas, while providing shade, moisture, and wind barriers (which reduces the need for heat/cooling in buildings). There is also the obvious one that nature provides: biodiversity. So, not only does nature help our bodily health, it helps our biosphere’s health! Keeping nature around and incorporating it into our increasingly growing urban settings is imperative to everything and everyone on Earth.

With what Richard Louv coined “nature-deficit disorder” increasing, it is more essential than ever for people of ALL ages to incorporate Vitamin N(ature) in their lives. Whether it’s at a nearby park, green space, window that overlooks greenery, a garden, WHATEVER you must do, get out and smell the roses. Enjoy nature, let it heal you, introduce it to your children, protect it, and find a way to make it a priority in your life. Parks, green spaces, and protected natural areas are here, accessible, and available to expose people to what the natural environment has to offer and to encourage generation on generation to preserve it. If we do our part, nature will do its part.