Nature benefits our Health￼￼
By Grant Lucas
Many people seem to agree that spending time in nature is good for them; unfortunately, until the 1980s, the proof was primarily anecdotal. However, more recent research measures how nature physically affects us versus how it psychologically impacts us.
In the 1980’s Japan began studies to determine if people spending time in nature provided any measurable benefits. The researchers focused on how nature affected people physically and mentally. They measured people’s blood pressure, stress level measured by cortisol, and heart rate variability (more variable is better). They measured before and after forest walks and discovered that all measures improved for most people.
In addition, the researchers discovered that humans have a particular response when exposed to phytoncides, which are aerosols created by trees to protect themselves. Our bodies make a special white blood cell called a natural killer or NK-cell, which roams the body looking for stressed cells that could turn cancerous and destroy them as a preventative measure. The researchers learned that more prolonged and frequent exposures increased the number of NK cells and how long they last in the body. A person will benefit more significantly when exposed to nature for extended periods and more frequently. The good news is that any nature exposure is beneficial for us. These same tests were replicated in other countries with similar results.
Since then, research has been conducted worldwide on the positive impact of nature-based therapies on people. An excellent resource for summarizing all this information is “the Nature Fix” by Florence Williams. In my opinion, this is a go-to book on the benefits of nature therapy. One of the central themes of these studies is that humans are most at home in nature because we evolved there and are increasingly distanced from nature due to how we live.
Spending sufficient time in nature, about five hours a month as measured by a Finnish study, reduces stress levels and improves our concentration and creativity as measured by tests before and after nature walks. This seems to happen because spending time in nature allows our minds to “rest.” This rest of the thinking (or worrying in my case) part of our brain will enable it to come back stronger, just as resting our muscles after a hard workout improves future performance.
Another interesting observation is that virtual nature helps us in a small way, but not in the same way immersion in nature works for us. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and a touch of nature are a complete package that heals us emotionally, intellectually, and physically. It promotes lower stress, improved concentration, and overall well-being.
The research is ongoing, and new benefits are discovered all the time. It all indicates that we should stop treating spending time in nature as something we do when time permits and make it a priority for us and our families.
Grant Lucas is a certified Forest Therapy guide and offers monthly Forest Therapy walks for the public at the Cibolo. Visit Cibolo.org for more details.