Nature as Medicine

 

Clearly my neighbors are up to something. Suddenly everybody in our little community is outside washing cars, grilling, working in the yard, talking (from a distance), and going for walks. Wow, are they going for walks!

Yes, spring has arrived and that means people want to be out more. That’s surely part of it. But, this is no ordinary spring.

It seems people have noticed an unfulfilled need. Nature is calling. For many of us, this desire to get outdoors is, well, second nature. It feels good to have some warm sun on our skin, feel the breeze, smell the flowers blooming and if you’re lucky enough to have a creek nearby, to hear the trickle of water over rocks.

And, now in this time of quarantining, that call has gotten stronger.

 

But, some parts of the world are living through strict stay at home orders. In other areas trails and recreation areas are closed. And, for those living in large cities, even if you can get out for a walk, finding any greenspace without traveling to it may be difficult or impossible.

For me, this raises two questions. How much nature do you need to help lower your stress level, lift your spirits and protect your health? And, if getting to the great outdoors isn’t possible, how else might you bring nature indoors?

Let’s start off with the smallest, quickest dose you can get. According to Finnish researcher Kalevi Korpela, “Within 200 milliseconds people react positively when they see images of nature.”

OK, that seems worth the time invested! It only takes a moment and your pulse rate begins to lower and your mood begins to shift toward the positive. And, according to Korpela, if you don’t have a view of mountains, a park or even a backyard out your window you can access this positivity by viewing images of nature.

And, there may be additional benefits to taking in these views over time rather than just in an instant. There is evidence that viewing nature scenes has a cumulative effect on reducing mental fatigue throughout your day (Kaplan, R. 2001). Although this study focused on viewing real nature, given what Korpela’s work revealed about nature images it seems worth a try to pause throughout your day to absorb some positivity from whatever source of nature you can find. More about that in a moment.

When we look beyond the notion of taking some much need pauses during the day, it gets more complicated to pin down exactly how much nature is necessary for health. We know that there is a strong correlation between exposure to nature and positive health outcomes. Based on intuition and simple observation, human beings have understood this connection for hundreds of years. In fact, the science behind today’s shinrin-yoku, or forest therapy, can be traced back to ancient Shinto and Buddist practices (Williams 2017). But, researcher Danielle Shanahan points out, “much remains to be learned about how much or what type of nature is required for the range of possible health benefits” (Shanahan et al. 2015).

Measuring a dose of nature is decidedly more difficult than measuring a dose of something you can take in a pill. Factors include length of time, frequency, and what is referred to as “intensity”, or how much nature you’re experiencing. For example, it could be a single tree or a mighty forest.

Despite the challenges, researchers are beginning to close in on some “minimum nature requirements” for healthy living.

A recent study found that benefits for self-reported well-being kicked in above 120 minutes per week and plateaued between 200 – 300 minutes per week (White et al. 2019). And their data shows that it doesn’t matter how the threshold is achieved. The authors suggest, “some may prefer long walks on the weekend in locations further from home; while others may prefer regular shorter visits to parks in the local area.”

Now back to the problem of not being able to get outside. If you’re in that position, there are several fantastic options for bringing the outdoors to you.

One idea is to bring some plants and flowers into your house and create an inside nature oasis to help you rejuvenate. Plants have been shown to help induce a positive frame of mind, which helps enhance creativity, improve mental processing and allow big picture thinking. The result of these upward shifts in cognitive power include higher productivity and improved learning (Selhub & Logan, 2014).

If you’re interested in imagery, there are hundreds of sources. On Instagram a few of my favorites are @nathanaelbillings, @chrisburkard, @jimmychin and @natures.moods. And, the websites of top landscape photographers are rich sources of incredible scenes, including Vistas team member Tim Manske.

In a related but quite different vein, nature sounds also have a calming and restorative effect (University of Sussex, 2017). This could mean opening a window and letting in the sound of real birds and the rustling of trees. Or, if opening your window only lets in the sound of passing cars, then perhaps tuning into recorded sounds of nature is the way to go. The app Naturespace offers amazing “3D” recordings, some for free or the full catalogue for just a few dollars.

And, for a multi-dimensional experience, Forest Bathing International now has a creative offering that was born from the need to practice physical distancing. You can take a virtual hike with a Forest Therapy guide for a small, sliding scale donation.

(Side note: I would love to hear your ideas on ways to bring small doses of nature into our lives through gardens, images, sounds, etc. Please leave them in the comments!)

 

This still leaves some questions unanswered. For example, can bringing nature indoors through images, apps and indoor plants add up to the same benefits as time spent in the outdoors? If so, how much of these indoor methods is needed? As the impact of nature on health continues to draw more attention, I’m certain that scientists will continue to answer these questions for us.

There are two takeaways that I hope you find in this post. First, the science is important to understanding and putting a name to what you are experiencing. It’s helpful to have guidelines for what benefits your health in the same way that it’s helpful to have guidelines for how much fiber to include in your diet. And, second, at the core of it all it’s really more of a feeling. The science is only confirming what you know intuitively.

Go out when and where you can. Put your feet in the grass, skip a stone across a pond, climb a trail to a new perspective. When you’re unable to get outside, bring nature to you through pictures and sounds and care for living plants that you can touch and smell. It all adds up. It’s all important.

And, in the end, you need exactly the amount that leaves you feeling restored.

 

Cox, D. T., Shanahan, D. F., Hudson, H. L., Fuller, R. A., Anderson, K., Hancock, S., & Gaston, K. J. (2017). Doses of Nearby Nature Simultaneously Associated with Multiple Health Benefits. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(2), 172.

Kaplan, R. (2001) The nature of the view from home: Psychological benefits Environment and Behaviour, 33:507-542.

Selhub, E. M., & Logan, A. C. (2014). Your brain on nature: the science of natures influence on your health, happiness, and vitality. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, Ltd.

Shanahan D.F., Fuller R.A., Bush R., Lin B.B., Gaston K.J. (2015) The health benefits of urban nature: How much do we need? BioScience, 65:476–485.

University of Sussex. (2017, March 30). It’s true: The sound of nature helps us relax. ScienceDaily.

White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. (2019) Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9: 7730

Williams, F. (2017). The nature fix: Why nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative.

Photo credit:  tmanskephoto.com

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.