A Doctor Explains How To Take Advantage Of The Healthy Benefits Of Nature
Many of us lead a balanced and healthy lifestyle but don't realize just how nature-deprived we really are. If you're like most people, you spend a large part of your life on your computer, watching TV, skimming 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.
Well, I'm here to remind you about the countless studies pointing to the benefits of nature and the damaging effects of urban life and screen time. As I propose in my book Your Brain On Nature, we'd all be better off getting outdoors for the sake of our health.
How does nature deprivation affect our health?
Research from all over the world is showing that people who live closer to green space live longer1 and have fewer health complaints. While this could be due to the fact that those who live near green, lush spaces also tend to have more money to spend on healthcare, other studies are finding that nature access can directly improve health.
For starters, it seems to be a buffer that helps people cope better with life’s stressors2. By reducing chronic stress, it can contribute to better health overall. Studies out of Japan3 have also 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 also outdoors also provides you with the benefits of natural sunlight: much-needed vitamin D and a stabilization of melatonin levels, which can be offset when you spend a lot of time with the screen.
So, how do we bring more nature into our lives?
You can put this emerging research into practice by incorporating more nature in your life in the following ways:
1. Spend 20 mindful minutes outdoors daily.
Commit to taking 20 minutes a day to spend time in nature—hiking, walking, gardening, sitting, or meditating. Whatever you choose to do, do it mindfully. Engage all your senses, observe your surroundings without judgment, and appreciate everything around you that's bringing your body and mind into a state of calm.
2. Go crazy with the plants.
Put a houseplant in your office or wherever you spend a lot of time. Views of plants and greenery have been shown to help improve attention4 and even decrease pain, with one study finding 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.
Some studies have shown that individuals heal faster in hospitals5 and have more energy at work6 when they have a view of nature instead of a built environment. 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 study7 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 get the body moving outdoors, you get the health benefits of exercising and being in nature. There's also some research to suggest that green exercise8 reduces percieved exertion and enhances mood more than indoor exercise.
And remember: Green space can include neighborhood parks, gardens, or even just grassy areas, so you don’t have to drive or fly to a forest or mountaintop to reap these healthy benefits.
Dr. Eva Selhub is an expert in the fields of stress, resilience and mind-body medicine. She studied medicine at Boston University and is board certified in Internal Medicine. She has been a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School, a clinical associate at Massachusetts General Hospital, and was medical director and senior physician at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital. She now runs a private practice as a comprehensive medical specialist and transformation consultant and is the author of Your Health Destiny: How to Unlock Your Natural Ability to Overcome Illness, Feel Better, and Live Longer.