In the era of smartphones and screen time-induced mental breakdowns, nature is a popular treatment suggestion, right up there with therapy and getting more exercise. Feeling burned out at work? Go for a hike. Feeling depressed about the state of the world? Spend some time at your local park. Spending too much time at home scrolling through Instagram? Buy a house plant. The extra oxygen is great for you, and as a nice bonus, you’ll have something new to post on your Instagram.
There’s a reason nature is such a common prescription: There’s a lot of science to back up the idea that spending time in a green space has a positive impact on mental and physical health. One study found that the very act of looking at nature will improve the health of your brain, and the Japanese practice of forest bathing (or spending time walking and meditating in nature) has been linked with benefits like improved heart health and decreased anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
If you’ve ever spent time in nature, you’re likely familiar with the calm that comes with the quiet of fall leaves crunching under your feet or rays of sunlight peeking through the trees. But exactly how far-reaching are the health benefits of nature? Let’s take a closer look.
In an age where burnout is an official medical diagnosis and we spend an average of four hours per day on our phones, our bodies’ fight or flight response is activated almost constantly. “The body sends energy soldiers to the limbs, heart, and lungs—the parts of you necessary to run, fight, or stay very still,” explains Aliya Rosenbloom, LMSW and co-founder of Casa De Miel, the first Ecotherapy center in Texas. “To do this, the body takes away from digestion, immunity, and decreases the cells that fight disease. In this state, we are literally creating environments that disease can thrive in.”
While there are a few ways to go about making a change that lowers levels of cortisol and adrenaline and fights disease as a result, there’s no question that nature helps. “Since the 1970s, thousands of publications—from books to scholarly journals to magazines—have supported the concepts that we already intuitively know: A connection with nature is beneficial and even vital for human health and wellbeing,” explains Rosenbloom.
One study found that walking for just 15 minutes through the forest lowered cortisol levels significantly, whereas walking in urban areas did not. “It doesn’t take much to reap the benefits of the outdoors—even a few moments of communion with the trees (some studies say even through a window!) is enough for your nervous system to respond,” she adds.
If spending time outside doesn’t provide you with the sweet relief you feel you’ve been promised, don’t be too surprised. Most likely, a real change in stress levels and overall health will come from a combination of things, like setting boundaries at work, spending less time on your phone, and yes, spending more time outside. But one way to take the benefits of nature to the next level is by exercising in it.
"'Green exercise,’ or physical movement in a natural setting, gets your heart rate up, your breath moving (which raises oxygen levels in your blood), and increases the activity of natural killer cells, a part of the immune system that fights cancer,” says Rosenbloom. “You’ll get all the benefits of exercises with the added sparkle of sunshine, flowers, and the birds’ latest jams.”
It’s also worth noting that you probably won’t reap the benefits of nature if you bring your modern day stressors with you. So as much as you may want to document your hike on social media, you’re much better off leaving your phone at home.
Rosenbloom says that while scrolling on your phone in nature may feel better than scrolling in your car, but you’re still taking away from what can be a transformative and healing experience. “Instead, try using all your senses to immerse your mind in the present moment and take yourself out of the future and past,” she suggests. “Nature is a completely sensational experience and can help us train our minds to remember that the text message from our triggering coworker is not actually going to take us down.”
Is it an exaggeration to say that nature can cure everything from a painful disease to serious depression? Yes, probably—and if you’re dealing with either one, you should always seek the advice of a doctor. But there’s no question that nature can help, so do your best to take advantage of all it has to offer.
In the spirit of spending time in nature, next, read up on eight real things that happen to your brain and body when you spend time outside.
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Ofcom. UK Communications Market Report 2018. Updated November 26, 2018.
Kobayashi H, Song C, Ikei H, Park BJ, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. Combined effect of walking and forest environment on salivary cortisol concentration. Front Public Health. 2019;7:376. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2019.00376