Numerous studies have shown that time spent in a natural environment on a regular basis is beneficial for one’s psychological and physical health. Environmental psychologists have been doing in depth research on how Nature affects humans for over thirty years. The results show humans not only benefit, but depend on Nature for meeting spiritual, emotional and mental health needs. Nature also helps physical health in a number of ways.
It has been found people who have less contact with natural environments experience higher stress levels. On the other hand, people who have recently spent time out of doors have lower levels of stress hormones. The positive effects can start to take effect after as little as five minutes. Research has shown 15 minutes walking in a natural environment can lower feelings of mental fatigue, make people feel more positive and increase their general level of enthusiasm.
The benefits of spending time in a natural setting include
• Reduced anxiety and fear
• Reduced stress
• Reduced anger
• Increased energy
• Feeling more relaxed
Nature boosts the immune system and helps people recover more quickly from illness. Research shows humans are genetically programmed to enjoy Nature and becoming engrossed in it can help reduce pain.
Nature can be experienced in the home garden, a park or by taking a walk down a tree lined street. Time spent by a river, the beach, in the hills or even a desert can be beneficial to your health.
Activities such as gardening, camping, hiking, bird watching, fishing, photographing the natural environment and simply walking are ways to enjoy Nature.
Adelaide Botanic Gardens Image:Marie Vonow
Some specific aspects of Nature have particular health benefits.
Running water The sound of running water, whether it be a creek, water fountain or water fall, has a calming effect. Negative ions in the air after a thunderstorm or around fast moving water such as crashing waves energise people.
Walking barefoot on natural surfaces Walking barefoot on soil, sand or grass is known as earthing. A 2010 study published in The Journal of Alternative And Complementary Medicine drew attention to positive changes in rate of respiration, pulse rate and blood oxygenation during earthing. Walking on damp grass or wet sand is said to bring the best results.
It is claimed that standing barefoot on grass will relieve a headache within 10 minutes. A study found 20 minutes of being barefoot eased muscle and joint aches in about 70% of the women who participated. There are thousands of nerve endings in the feet and the stimulation these receive when a person walks barefoot on grass benefits the whole body.
Freshly cut grass When grass is cut, aromatic compounds that soothe anxiety and make people feel relaxed are released. The smell also boosts memory.
Exposure to sunlight Being exposed to sunlight boosts vitamin D levels in the body. Vitamin D helps
• Boost the body’s immune system
• Regulate absorption of phosphorus and calcium
• Maintain strong teeth and bones
• Protect against flu, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease and type 1 diabetes.
Sunlight helps boost positive feelings and is important in regulating sleep patterns. Ten to fifteen minutes of sunshine daily can be enough to have health benefits - it is important not be over-expose our skin to the sun but we do need some exposure.
Watching wildlife Observing all sorts of fauna in their natural environment or even in an open range zoo has the potential to lower stress levels and help people relax. Activities such as bird watching and exploring an open range zoo encourage people to walk and so they get all the benefits that come with exercise.
Meerkat at Monarto Zoo Image:Marie Vonow
Lack of contact with Nature has a negative impact on physical and psychological health. Studies show increased obesity, stress, depression and anxiety connected to lack of exposure to natural environments. Many people also have higher blood pressure, more tension in their muscles, lower immunity to infection and show less empathy. Spending time in a natural environment is not just a pleasant experience but has many health benefits.