Enjoying the great outdoors may be the easiest way to improve your mental and physical health. Plus, it’s a great way to spend time with your partner, squeezing into the coming spring’s extra daylight hours and vacations some blanket time at a park, hiking a trail or sharing a sunset.
Spending time in nature or living close to open space provides significant and wide-ranging health benefits, according to a 2018 report from Britain’s University of East Anglia. Researchers gathered evidence from 140 studies involving more than 290 million people worldwide to prove what humans know instinctively: Being in nature is good for our nature.
Specifically, exposure to green space reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress and high blood pressure. Increases in sleep duration also were linked to being outdoors.
“Green space” is defined in the paper as open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban green spaces that include urban parks and street greenery such as trees. Los Altos and Los Altos Hills residents enjoy proximity to city green spaces and Peninsula Open Space Trust parks to reap maximum benefits.
While people report feeling better after spending time in nature, researchers wanted to know if this practice really delivers health benefits. The answer, they found, is undeniably true.
“We found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits,” reported lead author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett. “People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In fact, one of the most interesting things we found is that exposure to green space significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol – a physiological marker of stress.”
These results may explain why “forest bathing” is so popular in Japan. Forest bathing, or shinrin-yokum, means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.
According to a 2018 Time magazine article, forest bathing is not exercise or hiking or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.
The great outdoors
Despite looking closely at a large body of research on the relationship between green space and health, Twohig-Bennett said the reason for the relationship remains unknown.
And while the why isn’t yet understood, there is ample evidence demonstrating benefits to our psyches and bodies when we spend time in nature.
One study showed a reduction in depressive symptoms after a 30-minute walk in the park. Just imagining the sweet smell of a forest, the sunlight visible in soft spotlights through tall trees, a breeze on our skin can induce a feeling of calmness and pleasure. Making it real makes it even better.
It’s not clear yet whether how you spend time in nature versus just being close to nature is what matters most. Both options clearly have much to offer all of us. Whether you prefer a guided nature hike with others, sitting alone among trees or helping children discover nature, the outdoors welcomes us at all ages and in any combination.
Let the glorious spring weather lure you back to your evolutionary home. Why not get outside and feel the full physical and mental health benefits of living so close to nature? Extra credit for slowing down and smelling the redwoods.
Nancy Andersen is a Los Altos-based marriage and family therapist. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit nancyandersenmft.com.