Last month we released a blog post called Getting In To the Out, in which I shared a podcast I had listened to that talked about the benefits of nature on people. That sparked an interest for me with the science behind how powerful nature can be.
So I fired up the google machine and went see what I could see… or rather, read. As I came across lots of articles, it was initially sources like Outside Magazine and National Geographic that got my attention.
What I began to discover is that though we are still learning how to study the of effects nature on people, the research already conducted points toward the same result, one we intuitively know to be true – nature has huge benefits for human well-being, and it seems that science is actually proving it. So maybe, whether we realized it or not, our value for the outdoors is far bigger than it simply being something we enjoy or a great ministry tool. I’m thrilled.
Diving Into Recent Studies and Research
What I’ve done here is compile information from several different articles I’ve read about the research that’s been done. I do want to note that this isn’t an in-depth study, so I’ll share the info I’ve found and leave deeper background searching up to you.
The United States Department of Agriculture released a document in February of 2018 title, Urban Nature for Human Health and Well-Being, in which they had addressed the scientific approach of studying health and nature by saying this,
“Much of the prevailing social science research has been descriptive, or qualitative, because personal connections to nature are not readily expressed numerically. Early research described responses from people about nature preferences, perceptions, mood, satisfaction with place or neighborhood, and potential behavior. More recent quantitative or measured “nature and health” findings are largely correlational. They confirm a relationship between nature experience and measured health outcomes, but they don’t answer a key question—why do we see such responses?” (USDA, 2018)
Nature benefits people in many interconnected ways, and although there are more, I want to discuss just three. I will be highlighting the three areas we are typically most familiar with – physical, mental and emotional benefits.
Bodies, Cities and Food – Physical Benefits of Nature
An eight-year-long study involving over 3,000 children in southern California studied the height-to-weight ratio of children in relation to how close they lived to parks or places of recreation. They found that those who lived closer “had lower Body Mass Indexes (BMI) at age 18 than those who lived further away. In fact, it was estimated that if all the children had matching access, nearly 10% would see their BMIs move from overweight to normal, and 2% would move from obese to overweight” .
Studies directed at the benefits of urban forests and green roofs in cities showed that when these features exist they can reduce the urban heat island effects . “A recent review examined various types and scales of green space and found that green space can provide cooler air at the park, neighborhood, and city level. Every 10 percent increase in overall urban tree canopy generates a 2 °F (0.6 °C) reduction in ambient heat” .
Research is also showing that crime is reduced when comparing residential areas that have more vegetation, such as trees and grass, to areas that are more barren . A study in Baltimore discovered that “a 10-percent increase in tree canopy was associated with a roughly 12-percent decrease in crime.” In roadside gray areas in Philadelphia that had been enhanced with vegetation to reduce stormwater runoff, researchers found “significant reduction (18–27 percent) in reports of narcotics possession in areas around the green improvements, compared to an increase of 65 percent across the city during the same period” .
Studies pioneered by Roger S. Ulrich showed that nature, or even just views of nature, can help patients recover while in the hospital. “In his most well-known study, Ulrich investigated the effect that views from windows had on patients recovering from abdominal surgery. He discovered that patients whose hospital rooms overlooked trees had an easier time recovering than those whose rooms overlooked brick walls. Patients able to see nature got out of the hospital faster, had fewer complications and required less pain medication than those forced to stare at a wall” .
“Like other researchers, Ulrich has found that simply viewing representations of nature can help. In a study at a Swedish hospital, for instance, he found that heart surgery patients in intensive care units could reduce their anxiety and need for pain medication by looking at pictures depicting trees and water. These and other findings form the basis of Ulrich’s theory of supportive design, a series of guidelines for designers of health-care facilities. To soothe patients, families and employees, he says, facilities should incorporate such features as nature views and nature-related art in patients’ rooms, aquariums in waiting areas, atria with greenery and fountains and gardens where patients, family and staff can find relief” .
From the Outside In
Author and contributing editor to Outside Magazine, Florence Williams, joined a group of sex trafficking victims on an outdoor therapy expedition. The trip was put on by She Is Able, a non-profit that introduces women from different recovery centers into nature by connecting them with wilderness outfitter’s. Something that I hadn’t known about nature before is that it’s not just good for our bodies in an athletic sense, but it also helps us reconnect with our bodies in a therapeutic recovery sense. Williams shares a conversation she had with one of women, Rochelle, about how the trip is going for her.
“‘I am feeling a little bit exhausted,’ [Rochelle] says. ‘But I am honestly doing a lot of self-reflection.’ One thing she’s noticing is more physical sensation, not all of it pleasant. It’s a good reminder that she didn’t always take care of her body, and now she wants to. ‘It’s like a loving type of awareness, you know?’ This is one of the main reasons that being active and outside—in a full-sensory environment—can be so powerful” .
Williams writes about the insight that Aleya, another guide on the expedition, gives in regard to how powerful a natural environment can be to someone with trauma. Williams writes, “healing trauma is complicated. That’s because the brain wants to hold on to memories of danger. “They’re separate from linear, logical thought processes,” she says, “so your nervous system acts like it’s happening now or is about to.” Simply talking about traumatic memories doesn’t fully work, because it engages only those neural pathways associated with logic and speech. Healing involves both separating fearful emotions from bad memories and bringing the nervous system back to the safer, quieter present. “Trauma healing happens not only through talking, but also through integrative nonverbal therapies,” Aleya says, referring to both movement and mindful-ness. These happen easily in adventure sports, as long as they feel relatively safe” .
Williams also spent some time in Japan learning about the nation’s leading work in forest therapy. There are currently 48 official Forest Therapy trails with the goal to reach 100 within the next few years . While there she spends time with Yoshifumi Miyazaki from the University of Chiba and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and participates in some of their studies. She shares this information, “When we are relaxed and at ease in our environment, our parasympathetic system—sometimes called the rest-and-digest branch—kicks in, stimulating appetite. This is why food tastes better in the outdoors, explained Miyazaki. But the constant stimulus of modern life triggers our sympathetic nervous system, which governs fight-or-flight behaviors. And triggers it, and triggers it. A long trail of research dating back to the 1930s shows that people with chronically high cortisol levels and blood pressure are more prone to heart disease and depression” .
Take a Nature Pill – Mental Benefits of Nature
Ok, so natural environments benefit our bodies, but as we can see, these physical benefits are not independent from the mental and emotional side of our lives.
As someone who is diagnosed ADD and has been on several medications for it in the past, it was exciting to read this excerpt from Ming Kuo, who is the scientist featured in the podcast that started my initial interest in the subject. The USDA document I’ve been referencing relays her findings to us.
“Additional studies from the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, UrbanaChampaign, conducted over the past decade revealed strong evidence of nature’s benefits for children affected by Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Of note is a study they did that engaged children with ADHD in walks in several different environments. The children who walked in a park showed more improvements in attention after walking in a park than those who took walks in downtown or neighborhood settings. The effect was comparable to those reported for common pharmaceutical therapies for ADHD” .
I’ve put this theory to the test while writing this post. I’ve been taking my nature pill by spending intentional time outside. I do have to admit, it has helped me concentrate. I found that there is more of an explanation for why getting outside has helped me focus. Let me explain.
One of my favorite findings, which has come up in almost every article I’ve read is the work of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, researches at the University of Michigan. Their work is called the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which asserts that we give our attention to something in two different ways. “Directed attention is what people use at the workplace to solve problems and focus on tasks, all the while negotiating the surrounding distractions that typify many offices or workplace environments” . And it’s more than just work environments, but common place things such as finding a parking spot or checking email as well . Directed attention also leads to mental fatigue, which is that “drained” feeling that affects our cognitive performance.”  “‘Directed attention fatigues people through overuse,’ Stephen Kaplan explains. ‘If you can find an environment where the attention is automatic, you allow directed attention to rest. And that means an environment that’s strong on fascination’” .
This “automatic” attention he suggests is referred to as “soft fascination” and is the second kind of attention we use. To Kaplan, nature specifically provides this kind of soft fascination that restores our directed attention. “In one study, for instance, he asked participants to complete a 40-minute sequence of stroop and binary classification tasks designed to exhaust their directed attention capacity. After the attentionally fatiguing tasks, the randomly assigned participants spent 40 minutes walking in a local nature preserve, walking in an urban area, or sitting quietly while reading magazines and listening to music. After this period, those who had walked in the nature preserve performed better than the other participants on a standard proofreading task. They also reported more positive emotions and less anger. ‘These are not spectacular natural environments or horribly oppressive urban environments,’ says Hartig, an associate professor of applied psychology at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at Uppsala University in Gävle, Sweden. ‘We try to represent typical local conditions, using what’s available to people in the way of places they can enter if they’re feeling stressed and want some relief’” .
Rachel Kaplan gives us another glimpse at what soft fascination is with this description. She says it “happens when you watch a butterfly or the sunset or rain. You can’t help but stop multitasking or kvetching.” Great! So aside from watching butteries (which sounds wonderful) I can get the same benefit by going on a run in a park or even better, while on a boat enjoying some whitewater under the mountains, right? Apparently not so according to Mrs. Kaplan. She suggests “a decidedly nonathletic approach to the outdoors, at least at times. ‘When you’re pursuing a sport, you get cardiac points, but you’re not necessarily getting nature points,’ she says. Research by her colleague Jason Duvall suggests that when you are distracted outside—running with an iPod, say—you may be more irritable and impatient later, less able to stay on task, focus, and plan than your nature-engaged peers” .
Nature for the Heart – Emotional Benefits
Like I said, nature benefits overlap multiple areas of our human life. Hopefully this is becoming apparent in what I’ve shared so far. Let’s steer a bit more toward emotional benefits now.
Florence Williams, who seems to be an ever present voice in the nature topic, recorded more interesting results from her time with Yoshifumi Miyazaki while in Japan. The director of the Centre for Environment Health and Field Sciences has monitored over 600 participants during their time in those Japanese Forest Therapy trails. They go there to participate in a practice called forest bathing, which has become very popular for the Japanese, who tend to operate under a large amount of stress .
Miyazaki and his colleague Juyoung Lee compared forest walks with urban walks and Williams records that forest walks “yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. On subjective tests, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety” .
Bill Frist, a contributor to Forbes magazine added this, “the lower concentrations of cortisol are a direct indicator of less stress. Overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones has been linked to increased anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain, and focus and concentration difficulties. Overall, forest bathing appears to have significant stress-reduction benefits. When a person is stressed, views of nature can reduce blood pressure, muscle tension, and pulse rate within minutes” . Again, though we are focused on stress reduction, the interconnectedness of a human being is apparent.
Frist also shares this bit of science, which brings the mental health angle back into focus. “Conversely, being in a high-stress environment such as on a highly-trafficked street will cause the brain to signal production of cortisol by the adrenal glands. Elevated cortisol interferes with learning and memory, weakens immune function and bone density, and increases weight gain, blood pressure and heart disease. It also impacts mental health and resiliency by disrupting brain development in children, triggering emotional problems, depressive disorders, and negatively affecting attention and inhibitory control. Toxic stress has been called public health enemy number one, and time in nature can be an effective counterbalance” .
Adventure Style Benefits
In the midst of emotional and mental health seeming to be a current and relevant topic, we are learning that spending time in nature is a practical way to maintain emotional prosperity. The women on the She Is Able expedition experienced physical benefits that were helping them become more whole on an emotional plane. Now let me introduce Akuna who, similar to the women with She Is Able, is someone who has experienced traumatic experiences, although his are of an entirely different kind.
Akuna is an Iraq war veteran who set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT). He completed both trails and discovered he got more out of his journey than amazing views and a leg work out.
“I regained my confidence on the Pacific Crest Trail, and my leadership on the AT,” he says. Outside Magazine says, “His memories of his days on the PCT had proven more effective than any therapy in relieving anxiety and depression. Able to focus on the accomplishments and the people he’d met, he was applying what he’d learned on the trail to his everyday life, feeling more confident and at ease in the world. And he wanted more.” Akuna plans to hike the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) next .
Could it be that Akuna is getting a huge dose of nature and reaping these benefits from it? It seems that could very likely be so. In anticipation of his CDT through-hike he says, “On the Continental Divide Trail I’ll be forced to build my self-reliance. It’s so remote and isolated, it will give me something to accomplish without the big support communities. Every time I’ve done a hike, it’s restored part of me. I’m looking forward to getting back to being the man I used to be” .
What About Sustainability?
It’s beginning to look like nature really does do a whole lot of good for us and in so many ways. Although, what happens when you’ve returned from your nature’s “office” visit and find yourself in the swing of modern urban life once more? Do the benefits you recently got from nature actually have a lasting impact?
Looks like I’m not the only one asking the question, but so is one of Yoshifumi Miyazaki’s collaborators, Qing Li. He is an immunologist in the department of hygiene and public health at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, as well as the chairman of the Society of Forest Medicine. To get some insight on how nature effects the human immune system he studied nature killer cells (or NK cells), which is a type of white blood cell that sends self-destructive messages to tumors and virus-infecetd cells. Apparently, stress, aging and pesticides can temporarily reduce you NK count. Because nature reduces stress, Li wanted to see if it would also increase someone’s NK count which could help fight infections and cancer. Here’s what he did, “In 2005 and 2006, Li brought a group of middle-aged Tokyo businessmen into the woods. For three days, they hiked in the morning and again in the afternoon. By the end, blood tests showed that their NK cells had increased 40 percent. A month later, their NK count was still 15 percent higher than when they started. By contrast, during urban walking trips, NK levels didn’t change” .
It may not be an end-all to the question of how long nature benefits last, but it’s definitely a start and very revealing as well.
It’s pretty impressive what people have discovered about nature and encouraging that there are some really great benefits to reap from getting into it. My perspective on getting outside has changed quite a bit and I’ve found that using nature for my well-being is very applicable in life.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the benefits and nature and more so, that you get outside and embrace all that it has to offer!
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This post is a part of our Nature Series. You can check out other post from the series here.
- Outside Online, Take Two Hours of Pine Forest And Call Me In The Morning, November 28, 2012, Florence Williams, Outside Magazine
- Outside Online, Survivors, May 1, 2018, Florence Williams, Outside Magazine
- Outside Online, The Healing Power Of Through Hiking, November 11, 2018, Merrell Sponsor Content, Outside Magazine
- Urban Nature for Human Health and Well Being, February 2018, United States Forest Service & United States Department of Agriculture
- Forbes Magazine, The Science Behind How Nature Affects Your Health, June 15, 2017, Bill Frist
- Monitor on Psychology, Green is good for you, April 2001, Rebecca A. Clay, American Psychological Association