Health Benefits of Nature

Notice these four pairings of natural and industrial images below. How do the natural images make you feel? What about the industrial ones? Do you perceive any differences in the energy emitted by the photographs? Which ones seem to have a higher energetic vibration, and which lower?

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” – Gary Snyder

Our planet is amazingly beautiful.

And yet, the majority of the time we find ourselves amidst boring and sterile-looking man-made surroundings that fail to inspire and uplift us the way nature does. We are biologically adapted to be in nature, but rather than seek fulfillment and healing in the natural environment, we turn to computer screens, gadgets, and pharmaceutical drugs. This movement away from nature and towards technology and man-made surroundings has disturbing consequences for our mental and physical health, and for the earth in general.

My story of nature deprivation

Growing up in Manhattan, I was aware of city life’s draining effect, and noticed that when I spent time at my family’s home on rural Long Island, I felt more alive, connected, and at ease. Despite my strong affinity towards nature, I was unable to articulate my feelings that something was missing from life in the city. Our society’s alienation from nature and the fragmenting effect that this has on our psyches wasn’t something that ever came up in classrooms or in the news. I wasn’t taught to investigate my sense that something was fundamentally wrong with the way we were living our lives, so instead I tried to ignore it. Like many others, I attempted to distract myself from the feelings of loss and deprivation I experienced from being estranged from nature through activities like watching TV, internet surfing, being overly fixated on my appearance, and shopping.

I went to a college in New England that was on a beautiful woodsy campus. Surrounded by trees instead of concrete, I realized that the chronic feeling of meh-ness that I had experienced in the city was not normal. I developed a deeper sense of respect for the environment, and tried to get outside more, doing activities like trail running, hiking, sailing, or simply getting up early to watch the sunrise.

After college, I returned to city living with a greater understanding of the restorative properties of nature. I still live in New York (for better or for worse), but I make a concerted effort to connect with the outdoors – whether it going to a park, hiking upstate, or vacationing in outdoorsy places. I also like to infuse the air with natural essential oils and play nature sounds on my computer.

Heath benefits of being in nature

Most research regarding the beneficial effects of spending time in nature has been conducted in Japan, where a practice called Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” is known to be an effective antidote to the stresses of city living. Studies examining participants involved in forest bathing have proven that spending time in the outdoors:

  • Induces a state of relaxation
  • Induces positive changes in cerebral blood flow and dominance of parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down
  • Increases alpha wave amplitudes in the brain, indicating a state of wakeful relaxation
  • Increases the feel-good chemical serotonin
  • Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
  • Lowers cortisol levels
  • Improves immune function
  • Increases activity among natural killer cells
  • Decreases hemoglobin, which increases during periods of stress

 

It also:

  • Reduces depressive symptoms
  • Reduces psychological stress
  • Reduces feelings of hostility and anger
  • Increases vigor and feelings of wellness
  • Increases focus
  • Increases feelings of affection, playfulness, and elation
  • Improves sleep

 

For more in-depth explanations on nature’s health benefits, I recommend the book Your Brain on Nature by Eva Selhub, MD and Alan Logan, ND. 

Nature clearly acts as an extremely beneficial tonic that helps to buffer stress and the damaging cascade-like effect that stress can have on our physiology. Given the profound health advantages of spending time in the outdoors, it really is ridiculous that isn’t discussed more as a means to heal physical and mental maladies.

Personally, I’ve found that if I spend several months in the city without getting outside, I start to get anxious, sleep poorly, become chronically lethargic, and feel unfocused and scattered. The stress caused by not being in a natural environment suppresses my immune system and I come down with colds that never seem to go away. When I spend time in nature regularly, on the other hand, I feel more peaceful, upbeat, relaxed, and confident. I also feel great physically, and rarely come down with a cold.

Connecting with nature to save the planet

Health benefits aren’t the only reason for us to spend time outdoors. We need to cultivate a meaningful relationship with nature so that we understand what’s at stake when our planet is being pillaged and polluted for our conveniences and passing fancies. The more distance that we allow to lapse between ourselves and nature, the more apathy we develop towards it. If we are going to save the environment and ourselves from destruction, then we must make a serious effort to mend the disconnect that we’ve created.

Tips for spending more time outdoors

Visit your nearest park at least once a week.

If you live in a nature-deprived area, research nearby areas where you can do outdoor activities like hiking. Commit to doing some form of outdoor activity once a month or more.

Join Meetup groups that organize outdoor adventures.

Rather than visiting a city during your next vacation, consider going somewhere more nature-y.

Tips for connecting mindfully with the environment

Leave your cell phone, camera, and other gadgets at home! We can’t mindfully commune with the environment if we are elsewhere mentally. Also keep in mind that our over-preoccupation with technology is one of the main causes of our disconnection from nature.

Look around with eyes of curiosity.

Take in the overall view, but also focus on both small details in your line of vision.

Interact physically. If you’re on the beach, try passing the sand between your fingers. If you’re in the forest, you can touch the bark on trees, the soil, and the leaves of plants (as long as they’re not poison ivy).

Tune into your individual senses

In my opinion, this is one of the best ways mindfully observe nature.

First close your eyes and take a deep breath. Notice for a few moments the sensations that you feel. If you’re at the beach you might feel a warm breeze on your face, the sun on your skin, and the sand beneath your feet.

Next, what do you smell? The ocean usually has a salty, invigorating smell, whereas forests have more fragrant, earthy smells.

Then, listen to the sounds. Are there birdcalls? Ocean waves crashing? Leaves rustling? Cicadas chirping? Perhaps you hear the scurrying of a squirrel up a tree, or leaves crunching beneath the feet of a deer.

Finally, open your eyes and look carefully at your surroundings. Allow yourself to be drawn in by what you see.

Notice the colors and textures of your surroundings such as:

  • The color of the sky
  • The light that comes through the leaves of trees when the sun is shining through them, creating a yellow-green glow
  • (If you’re at the beach), the foam and mist created by the waves crashing

 

Creating a nature-like sanctuary in your home

While spending time in actual nature is optimal, it’s not realistic for many of us to interact with it as often as we’d like. Luckily, we can still benefit from exposure to isolated elements of the environment. Here are some of my tips for bringing nature into your home:

  • Keep several plants. Plants purify the air, help us to focus and concentrate, and uplift our mood.
  • Put himalayan crystal salt lamps throughout your home. These lamps emit health-boosting negative ions, which are also found in nature.
  • Breathe essential oils. You can either inhale these directly or use a diffuser. In particular, phytoncides – essences emitted by wood – have been found to increase activity in natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell. Essential oils containing phytoncides include cedarwood, cypress, Douglas fir, tea tree, and sandalwood.

 

A note on nature-inspired virtual realities

Now people can “go to the beach” or “on a hike” virtually if they own a virtual reality (VR) headset. While these may seem pretty cool, simulated versions of nature can never replace the real thing. Also, we need to spend more time away from technology in order to reconnect to the earth, as technology has helped to create our separation from nature in the first place.

Outdoor activities

Here’s a list of my personal favorite outdoor activities. The options are endless, but hopefully this will get you started thinking about the activities you’d like to try:

  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Snowshoeing
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Walking
  • Trail running
  • Swimming
  • Kayaking
  • Reading outside
  • Birdwatching
  • Collecting shells and rocks
  • Watching the sunset
  • Sitting by a campfire or fire pit

There are many more that I have yet to get into such as:

  • Gardening
  • Surfing
  • Sailing
  • Snorkeling
  • Yoga on the beach
  • Outdoor drum circles
  • Rock climbing
  • Skiing
  • Etc., etc.

The idea is to think about all the different activities out there are and go with what resonates with you.

Outdoor organizations

Outward Bound

National Park Service (NPS)

Meetup. Meetup is a great place to join all kinds of groups, but I find that their outdoor groups are particularly good.

Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC)

Pacific Crest Trail Association

Resources

YouTube Videos

Science of “forest bathing” is fewer maladies, more well-being (with Dr. Qing Lee)

Forest therapy with Ben Page

Tiny cabins in VA’s woods to slow down & resync inner clock

Banff Mountain Film Festival

The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada annually curates a selection of short-form documentaries on the theme of outdoor adventure. I try to go to their screenings at Symphony Space in New York every winter when the tour comes through the city.

Books

Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li (highly recommended, a beautiful and fascinating book that I’ve given as gifts to friends and family)

Your Brain On Nature by Eva M. Sehub and Alan C. Logan

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams

A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku by Amos Clifford