Maybe you took to heart my recent post about the health dangers of sitting too much.
Now it’s time to think about getting outside.
A substantial body of research affirms the numerous health benefits of spending time in natural settings: walking in woods or urban parks, canoeing down a river, tending a vegetable garden, meandering along a coastline or a lake shore.
Researchers have found that spending time in nature strengthens a person's immune system, reduces stress hormones, lowers blood pressure, and improves social interactions. Furthermore, it may improve learning and increase empathy.
Even a dose of five minutes improves our sense of wellbeing.
What’s more, creating green spaces such as parks and community gardens in urban residential environments reduces crime (especially gun violence), decreases domestic violence, stimulates positive social interactions, strengthens family connections.
Even hospital patients exposed to green spaces through their windows (rather than parking lots) have better clinical outcomes. They experience less fear, anxiety and anger. They have lower blood pressure and need fewer medications.
Biophilia: Human health may depend on connecting with nature
Biologist Edward O. Wilson and others have hypothesized that a deep affinity they call biophilia exists between humans and other living systems. Proponents of the hypothesis suggest that a connection with the the plants and animals around us, including those species too small to see, is essential to our physical and mental health and productivity.
Public health advocates around the world have begun advocating immersion in nature for health. For example:
- The Japanese have studied the specific effects of shinrin-yoku, “forest bathing,” for health.
- Scandinavians have begun promoting their 150 year-old tradition of friluftsliv—which roughly translates into “outdoor living and recreation”—for health purposes.
- Green Gym, a movement movement started by a medical doctor in Great Britain in 1997, combines outdoor physical fitness with conservation work.
Play in the Dirt!
Another line of provocative research suggests that inhaling or ingesting a common, non-harmful soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, in natural settings may activate brain chemicals whose effects are similar to antidepressants.
Further resedarch suggests that contact with the bacteria may even improve learning. As adults, perhaps we need to mimic our children’s instinctive behavior by getting out to play or walk in the dirt and make mud pies.
The buzzword connectivity describes the technological innovations that connect us 24/7 to our electronic communication devices. Yet with all the research associating improved health with spending time in the natural world, we all might want to consider unplugging and re-establishing a deeper connection with that world outisde our windows.
A final point worth pondering: What we don’t know and experience directly and intimately, we have little motivation to care for. How can we expect future generations to understand and protect our common natural environments if young people rarely go out and experience them?
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.