A Doctor Explains How To Take Advantage Of The Healing Powers Of Nature
If you're like many people, you spend a large part of your life on your computer, watching TV, and skimming or checking your smartphone, driving in your car, and sitting at your desk looking at a screen. You rarely get out into nature. And while you may realize that this isn't healthy, you simply don't have the time or energy to make a change, and besides, it's important to be "connected."
Many of us lead a balanced and healthy lifestyle but don't realize just how nature-deprived we really are. I figured this out after spending a week working at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in Canada, one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. Glaciers, mountains, lakes, fresh air, nice people, good food…the list is endless. And you could easily argue that any wellness retreat in a beautiful place will have health benefits, but I wasn’t on retreat. I was working. Not only was I running the retreat but I was also needing to answer emails and work on my next book chapter.
What's so different about nature?
So what was different about working at a beautiful hotel versus at home? Every room had a view of glaciers, regal mountains, and a beautiful lake covered with snow. It was breathtaking. Though I didn't get outside for more than a day, (I was mostly indoors) simply gazing out the window at nature allowed my body to relax and my mind to be at ease. Rather than being tired after a week of work and traveling, I came home feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle a very hectic schedule, as well as being able to be supportive to many friends, family, and patients in need.
This made me think about the countless research studies out there pointing to the benefits of nature and the damaging effects of urban life and screen time, something that I have written about often but did not fully understand until this experience. Did you know the average American uses the screen in one shape or form for at least 10 hours a day, which includes watching TV, being on the computer or smartphone, or playing video games? Are you aware that our addiction to such consumption is so strong that it keeps us from getting outdoors, costing us our health and possibly our life?
How does nature deprivation affect our health?
Studies have shown that screen time is associated with increased fatigue, depression, anxiety, ADHD in children, and poor concentration. Japanese researchers, for example, found that people who lived closer to or near forests had significantly lower rates of lung, breast, uterine, prostate, kidney, and colon cancers.
Research from all over the world is showing that people who live closer to green space have fewer health complaints and live longer and that the green space itself is a stress buffer, helping people cope better with life’s adversity. Other studies have found that invisible chemicals (called phytoncides) in some trees can reduce stress hormones, lower anxiety, and improve blood pressure and immunity. As you know, being outdoors provides you with the benefits of getting natural sunlight, giving you much needed vitamin D and natural stabilization of melatonin levels, which are offset when you spend a lot of time with the screen.
How do we bring more nature into our lives?
1. Spend some mindful time in nature.
Take 20 minutes a day to spend time in nature—hiking, walking, gardening, sitting, or meditating. Without you knowing it, you will get exposure to unseen elements that are positively affecting your brain and body, like negative ions that improve your immune system and relax your body as opposed to positive ions that are emitted from electronics that can wreak havoc on your system. Whatever you choose to do, be in nature mindfully. Spending time in nature, engaging all your senses, observing your surroundings without judgment, and appreciating everything around you will bring your body and mind into a state of calm.
2. Go crazy with the plants.
Put a plant in your office or wherever you spend a lot of time. Studies show that a plant in a room can improve cognition, energy, and can even decrease pain. In this latter case, studies found that placing a plant in a hospital room reduced hospital stays, decreased the need for pain medication, and reduced the negative comments nurses put in patient’s charts.
3. Find a room with a view.
Countless studies show that individuals heal faster in hospitals, or have more energy and better cognitive abilities at work, when they have a view of nature instead of the urban concrete jungle. If possible, try to spend the majority of your time when in your home or office in the room that provides you with views of greenery. If this is not possible, you can hang photos of nature and add a photo of nature that you love as a screen saver on your computer or smartphone.
4. Make it a retreat.
Getting away, relaxing, and spending time in nature meditating, eating healthy, and sleeping deeply is sure to make you feel rested, renewed, and back on track. A recent study published in the January issue of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research reported that meditation retreats are moderately to largely effective in reducing anxiety, depression, and stress and improving quality of life.
5. Connect with nature through food.
This one is a bit obvious, but if it doesn’t come from the earth, your body will not react well to it. Think about bringing nature into your body, especially if you can’t get out into nature on a regular basis. Eat foods that are naturally available on this earth and shop in the outside perimeters of the grocery store, buying vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, lean and hormone-free protein, and wholesome grains. Even better, plant your own vegetables if you can—you'll get the combined benefits of eating healthy, spending time in nature, and getting some exercise.
6. Bring green to your fitness routine.
When you exercise outdoors, you get the benefits of being in nature like any other time and you also get the benefits of being able to enjoy the process a little more. For instance, jogging through the woods results in faster 1,800-meter completion times and, in the psychological realm, more satisfaction, more enjoyment, and less frustration when compared to the open laps. Jogging in the woods decreases perceptions of fatigue and physical symptoms that might otherwise interfere with exercise adherence and outdoor running versus the treadmill at an equivalent duration, and is associated with less fatigue, diminished anxious thoughts, less hostility, more positive mental thoughts, and an overall feeling of invigoration.
7. Plan your life around nature.
As I mentioned, studies all over the world are showing that the closer you live to some greenery, the better your health and the lower your stress. Green space can include neighborhood parks, gardens, or even just grassy areas, so you don’t have to drive to a nearby forest or mountaintop. Research your own neighborhood and find where the parks are and spend some time there or start your own garden.