It’s time to get outside and connect with nature.
I don’t know about you, but trying to get my kids out of the house these days is like pulling teeth. They complain, protest, and whine. It’s almost enough for me to let them have their way and just stay put.
But I don’t give in.
Spending time outside in nature is not just a way to pass time on free days; it is imperative for physical, emotional, and mental health.
The benefits are numerous:
1. Spending time outside in natural light, especially in the early morning, helps regulate the circadian clock.
The circadian clock is an internal clock in our brain that has an important role in driving many processes in the body, including sleep, hormone release, body temperature, and gut health. The clock responds to external cues, especially light; therefore, early-morning sunlight exposure is a strong signal to get systems functioning as they should.
2. Exposure to sunlight enables the production of vitamin D in your body.
Vitamin D is formed in the skin through a reaction with sunlight. It is important for modulating many reactions in the body and has a role in gene expression, immune function, and bone health. Due to minimal exposure to sunlight, many people living in the Northern Hemisphere have deficient levels of vitamin D.
3. Spending time in nature can lower blood pressure, calm the nervous system, and improve mood and anxiety.
A 2014 study done in Japan looked at the response of young men who walked in the forest versus those who walked in an urban environment. They found that the men who spent time in the forest had significantly lower heart rates as well as higher heart rate variability, which is a signal of increased stress resilience. They also reported better mood and lower anxiety than the men who walked in urban spaces.
4. Spending time in nature can make you smarter.
Psychologists Marc Berman, PhD, and Kathryn Schertz reviewed the literature on the cognitive benefits of spending time in nature in 2019. They found evidence that exposure to natural environments improves performance on working-memory, cognitive-flexibility, and attentional-control tasks. Green spaces near schools were associated with cognitive development in children in one study. In another, green views near the homes of young girls were associated with self-control behaviours. Experimental studies also supported the association between exposure to nature and improvements in cognitive performance.
5. Spending time in nature can increase your creativity and attention.
A 2012 study done with a group of hikers who spent four days immersed in nature showed they had significantly better scores on a task that required creative thinking and problem solving compared with a similar group that had not just spent four days in nature. The researchers had a theory that the results were due to lack of stimulation of everyday activities, which then allows the pre-frontal cortex to restore and replenish so it is better able to perform its executive functions. They note the limitations of the study include not being able to determine if the effects were due to an increased exposure to nature and the positive responses to this, a decreased exposure to technology and its associated expectations, or another factor.
6. Spending time in nature can make you more empathic, agreeable, generous, and helpful.
In a series of experiments in 2012, researchers in California found that exposure to beautiful nature, when compared with exposure to nature not perceived as beautiful, leads to increased interest in social behaviour through higher positive emotions.
7. Spending time in nature can improve your immune system function and decrease your stress hormones.
A 2010 review looked at the effects of forest bathing in Japan. Forest bathing trips, called shinrin-yoku in Japanese, are very popular. They are essentially short, leisurely visits to a forest. The review found that people who spent time forest bathing had increased natural killer cell activity and lower stress hormones in their system. Natural killer cells are a type of white blood cell that is involved in limiting the spread of infections and can play a role in cancer prevention. The increased activity in natural killer cells lasted for 30 days after the forest visit.
8. Finally, the most important thing is that it appears that we gain the benefits from time in nature even when we don’t enjoy it.
A study done in Michigan found that people who walked in nature on an unpleasant windy cold winter day still performed much better on short-term memory and attention tests than those who walked in an urban environment, even though they didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. They found that mood tended to be higher as well. One of the researchers, Marc Berman, discussed the results in a newsletter: “What we’re finding is that you don’t have to like the interaction with nature to get the benefits.”
Our family gets out into the great wild world almost every day in the summer. And if I must resort to some incentivizing to make that happen, I’m OK with that. This way, the adults are more likely to enjoy it and the kids, well, they will get the benefits regardless. ♥
Mikel Segal, MD, CCFP, is a physician and health coach with an interest in helping people reach their full potential. She can be found at www.mikelsegalmd.com, on Instagram at @mikelsegalmd, and on Facebook at Mikel Segal MD. Sign up to get her free smoothie-building guide here: http://eepurl.com/hxVNbP.
“Summer Is on Its Way!” is from our summer 2021 newsletter, Heart Matters. See our Newsletters page for more stories and to subscribe.