In his book Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the experience common to many of us who live in cities and spend most of our time indoors. Louv argues that we need nature to survive, and that without it our mental and physical health are both affected. I’m sure you’ve found this to be true in your own life. Think about the last time you enjoyed your favorite outdoor place, whether it was a beach, a hiking trail, or a park filled with trees and flowers. If you come away from these places feeling more invigorated and happy, it’s not just your imagination. Science can confirm that being outside is essential to our health and wellness.
Health Benefits of Nature
Studies have found that spending at least two hours outdoors a week can unlock so many benefits for our physical and mental health.One study showed that accessing green spaces like parks, hiking trails, and other natural environments can help to undo the negative impacts we face in modern society, from anxiety to high blood pressure, and can even improve our immune systems.
One study in England even found that when a community has more access to natural, green spaces, the crime rate goes down significantly. A study by the University of Illinois found something similar, noting that public housing residents who lived near trees and green space reported a closer community, felt a greater sense of belonging and even said they knew more people than residents without this access to nature. Putting yourself near nature really can impact the way you view the world and keep you feeling happier and healthier.
What Nature Does to Our Brains
Scientists think that one big reason why being in nature is so good for us is that it gives our brains exactly what they want. A concept called Attention Restoration Theory, which was first coined in the 1970s, says that living in urban environments surrounded by man-made sounds like traffic and construction make it actively harder for our brains to pay attention and process information. Going outside and being surrounded by natural sounds gives our brains a chance to finally relax and take in information without having to work so hard.
A study by the University of Sussex confirmed this. The study compared MRI scans of people’s brains while they listened to natural sounds to scans taken while they listened to artificial, or man made, sounds. It found that when subjects were listening to artificial noises their brains were directing a lot of attention inward, which is similar to what brains do when they’re experiencing anxiety, PTSD and depression. On the other hand, when the sounds of nature were played, the scans showed that the subjects’ brains were directing focus outward. When we’re out in the sounds of nature, our brains find it much easier to pay attention to the world around us and burn through stress. This same study even found that the more stressed you are, the more you have to gain from nature’s restorative impacts.
The Power of Sound
You probably already know about the power that sound can have on your mental state; a song or white noise machine can bring you peace or boost your energy, while distracting or annoying noises can easily derail your focus and happiness. As it turns out, natural sounds have immensely healing powers. A report on 36 studies on the impact of natural sounds on people found that just the sounds of nature on their own can have a healing effect and can even reduce pain. The noise of running water, like streams, brooks and lakes, were found to be very good for increasing subjects’ happiness and cognition, while bird sounds were the best for relieving stress and annoyance.
This means that if you live in a very urban area, going to your local park might not be quite enough to get the full benefits of nature— if you can still hear sounds of traffic, your brain isn’t getting the chance to wind down and open up, and all the activity might scare away the birds and their healing calls. If you’re really looking to take advantage of nature’s healing abilities, finding a more remote park or hiking area where it’s quiet enough to hear the sounds of the ecosystem will be worth it. And if there happens to be a river or water feature, even better!
If you ever find yourself drawn to the beauty of a crashing coastline or rushing waterfall, you might be benefiting from more than just a pretty view. Negative ions are created in the air anywhere that water crashes into itself, whether it’s at the beach, a river, or even a fountain or park water feature. Just getting out into the rain can get you close to these negative ions. Many studies have been done on the impact of negative ions on our health, and there’s some good evidence that they can have positive side effects. In particular, being near negative ions can reduce the symptoms of depression and seasonal affective disorder. There’s evidence that these ions might also help normalize sleeping patterns, lower stress levels, and give immune systems a boost. If you live near a beach or any other place where there’s moving water, consider paying one of these locations a visit and reaping the health benefits they have to offer.
The Importance of Fun in the Sun
We all know the joy of seeing the sun for the first time after a long winter or rainy week. There’s a good reason for this response; spending time in the sunlight has many health benefits. Sunlight causes your brain to produce serotonin, a chemical responsible for positive feelings and a sense of calm. Sunlight also helps you regulate your sleep better; your circadian rhythm takes its cue from the sun, telling you to wake up when it’s light out and causing you to get sleepy after it gets dark. Research shows that getting an hour of natural light in the morning can help reinforce your body’s natural clock, helping you to get better sleep at night.
Sunlight is also our greatest source for getting vitamin D. Spending just five to thirty minutes a day outside while it’s sunny helps our bodies produce more of this vitamin, which contributes directly to strong and healthy bones and keeps our immune systems strong.
All of these benefits and more are a great argument for going out and getting your recommended dose of sun. Just remember to put on sunscreen before going out to avoid risks of skin cancer or skin damage.
Nature has always called to us as human beings, inspiring some of the greatest works of art and serving as daily inspiration for us all. Not only is nature good for our souls, it’s also a powerful source of both mental and physical wellness, helping get our natural rhythms in sync and giving our brains some much-needed calm and rest. If you’ve been feeling physically drained or mentally distracted, try getting out into nature and drinking in all the benefits it has for you.