The science confirms it: spending time in nature is good for us. Not only does it benefit our physical wellbeing, but our psychological health too. Getting out in nature helps us connect to something bigger than us, to put things in perspective.
Looking out on to nature helps us feel more grounded.
Even if we might not be able to physically ‘get out’, just a glimpse of a landscape can change how we feel. It puts us in the present and gives us the opportunity to slow the pace, come back into the moment. It changes – literally – our horizons.
Think about it: when we’re looking to buy or rent a house, we value a beautiful view over many other criteria. To be able to look out onto fields, mountains, or the sea adds enormous value to a property precisely because a natural view is so appealing.
Robert Ulrich studied post-op patients in a Pennsylvania hospital and found that those who could look out on to nature reported lower pain levels than those who could only see a brick wall through the window (source). The nature-viewing patients also left hospital sooner than their brick-viewing counterparts.
The physical benefits of getting out in nature
‘Forest bathing’ is a growing movement here in the UK. Based on the Japanese nature-therapy practice called shinrin-yoku, the idea is to spend time in a wood or forest. It has nothing to do with actual bathing – there is no water involved – but rather, you ‘bathe’ in an environment surrounded by trees.
It’s a simple, sensory practice, best done without your mobile phone as company. You walk through the trees, using your senses: enjoy the sound of birds, of leaves rustling in the breeze, the sight of dappled sunlight on the ground, the different tones and colours, the smell of the plants, the texture of tree bark. There is no fixed destination, no particular plan of where to go.
It is a mindful practice, as opposed to a brisk walk in the countryside with the dog. It’s not recommended that you rush it. Rather, give yourself the time to focus your attention in the present moment, to slow your pace.
The psychological benefits of getting out in nature
Another study (source) investigated the psychological benefits of forest bathing and found that it:
- lowers stress
- decreased levels of depression
- lowers levels of hostility
Where can I practice forest bathing?
So apart from just heading out to your nearest woods and giving it a go, where could you find organisations that offer forest bathing? The RSPB organises forest bathing events, which can be booked online.
On the National Trust website you’ll find a beginner’s guide to forest bathing, along with a list of forests around the UK where you could have a go.
The Canal River Trust also details places alongside UK canals where you can enjoy nature, and they refer to their own research which shows that enjoying nature alongside the canals improves “health, wellbeing and happiness”.
A connection to nature is good for your wellbeing
At the University of Derby they found that improving your connection with nature leads to significant increases in wellbeing. They investigated the links between people’s connection with nature and two types of happiness – feeling good and functioning well – and found that people who are more connected to nature tended to function better and have greater well-being. The study also found that these people reported higher levels of personal growth.
The increasing acceptance of the health benefits of nature in our lives have led to the NHS being urged to include it in ‘social prescribing‘ and to prescribe it for sufferers of conditions such as anxiety and depression. A University of Westminster study concluded that social prescribing had the potential to reduce demand on GP appointments.
Getting out in nature can be emotionally healing
Some years ago, I suffered the loss of someone I loved very much. I decided to take some time out, and went to live for a few months in a small house in Dominica. The house was in the jungle, down a long track that led to a long forgotten plantation area. It had no electricity, no glass in the windows, very few creature comforts, but it was just what I needed.
I woke up with first light, went to sleep when it got dark. I was surrounded by the sounds of the jungle around me, its smells and visual beauty. The noise of coconuts falling on the tin roof in the night regularly woke me up. There were bats living outside, and the lack of glass in the windows inevitably meant that the ‘outside’ often came in.
So how did I fill my time in such a pared-down, natural existence? I did yoga, I read, I painted, I walked. This change of environment, being surrounded by so much ‘life’, helped to transport me emotionally to another place. Grieving felt easier here than back in my ‘real life’. Nature is nurturing, and enables recovery, but you have to let it in. This was a complete absorption in nature, no phones, no TV, no distractions, just 100%, 24/7 nature.
Get out in nature to improve city living
However, it’s not necessary to spend hours and hours at a time in nature as I did in order to benefit from it – short periods have been shown to have a beneficial effect too.
Researchers at King’s College London assessed ‘the relationship between nature in cities and momentary mental wellbeing in real time. They found that (i) being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing, and that (ii) the beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in those individuals with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues’. (source)
Indeed, at the University of Exeter Medical School their study showed that just 2 hours of nature per week has significant benefits for our health and wellbeing. They found that the 2 hours didn’t have to be spent in one go, so walking round the park every lunchtime counts just as much as a leisurely 2 hour stroll along a beach at the weekend.
I’m lucky to live somewhere now where I have fields just 2 minutes walk away. I can change my whole mood by taking my dogs out for even just a quick 15 minute walk. But what can you do if you live in a city?
For years I lived in Buenos Aires, a massive, sprawling city. Like many cities, it has some very lovely parks, the larger ones even have large expanses of water. You can almost forget you’re in a massive metropolis when you have ducks quacking in front of you and dragon fly hovering nearby.
Most cities have tucked away, natural spaces that many people are unaware of, such as canal footpaths, or disused railway areas – think of how fabulous the High Line in NYC is. Large galleries and museums often have gardens that are open to the public too.
Easy ways to incorporate more nature time in your daily life:
- Start your day with a coffee in the garden
- If you don’t have a garden, how about keeping some plants on the window sill or outside in a window box
- Hang some bird feeders outside your window
- Walk to work, or if it’s too far, get off the bus a stop early, or park your car a little further from your destination
- Take a walk at lunchtime.
- Look for 5 beautiful things to make the most of your senses: the smell of a flower, droplets on a leaf, the texture of a plant, the sound of leaves in the wind
- If it’s raining, look out of the window and appreciate the sounds and patterns the rain makes
- Try to catch the sunset and see how the colours and cloud shapes change from one day to the next
- Look at the stars before going to bed at night
Summary: Getting out in nature is great for your health!
We all live busy lives and it can be difficult prioritising the time to get out into greenery. But nature is all around us to be enjoyed, if we stop to appreciate it. Even just adding some potted plants to a windowsill can make an otherwise ugly urban view so much better. If you can’t get out to nature, bring it in.
Nature And Kids
Sometimes it can be tough to get kids to connect with nature, especially as they get older and their friends and computer-based activities become more appealing. Try this childhood game with your little ones, and encourage them to relate more to the natural world around them.