Anxiety, obesity, heart disease and depression are some of the biggest problems in our society today, no debate. These ‘modern day’ ailments are hurting us and we are unwittingly passing this legacy onto our children. The media, with it’s sweeping generalisations, blames lack of exercise, nutrition and technology among other things as the cause. There is now a large volume of science backing up, what we know intuitively to be true, that the lack of time outdoors in nature is also a major cause.
We are in a period of massive urbanisation, to the indoors and sitting all day with our sedentary lifestyles. According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, American adults spend less time outdoors than they do inside vehicles, less than 5 percent of their day!
Linking modern disease to getting outdoors is most definitely co-relation, but is it causation? The answer is yes, there is a huge amount of science showing that it is a cause.
The Outdoor Body’s mission is to get people playing outside. To live a fulfilled, healthy and fit life. A big part of getting outside is finding yourself in nature. This doesn’t mean you need to be alone in the mountains or on a beach, simply a small park or garden in the middle of a city is great!
What is nature or the outdoors?
“A place where birds fly around uncooked” as Oscar Wilde defines it.
It depends on where you live. It could be a lonely wander in the mountains, swim in a lake, time a beach, walk in a park, finding the place where there are the least buildings or the most greenery near you. Somewhere with birds maybe. It is tough to define but for most of us we are lucky enough to have access to nature in outdoor public space even if it is just a inner city park.
Do we already know this?
Cyrus the Great, 2,500 years ago, built gardens for relaxation in the busy capital of Persia. Recently American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir along with Olmsted, built the spiritual and emotional case for creating the world’s first national parks by claiming that nature had healing powers.
Something we all intuitively know is that spending time outside makes you feel happy and rested. I’m not going to be all wishy washy here, there is now plenty of cold hard evidence showing that being outside is good for your mind and body.
In Finland, public health officials now recommend that citizens get 5 hours a month, minimum, in the woods, in order to stave off depression. Using evidence based method they found that people need this time in order to preserve their mental health. Some Asian countries have also decreed that nature should be a fundamental part of democracy; that it’s a human right and a necessity.
You could say that this recent scientific movement started in Japan in the 80’s with findings by researchers led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University. Subjects strolled in different forests, while the same number of volunteers walked around city centres. The forest walkers hit a relaxation jackpot. Overall they showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate. Miyazaki believes our bodies relax in pleasant, natural surroundings because they evolved there, our brains become relaxed because these are things that we were designed to look at. Our senses are adapted to interpret information about plants and streams, he says, not traffic and high-rises. This research has led to the popularity of ‘forest bathing’ in Japan.
It seems to me that there are parallels to the time when it was just being accepted that exercise is good for you. The thinking became accepted slowly through science picking up and proving what everyone intuitively knew. We are now seeing the public realisation that being outside is also good for you through the proof of science.
Throw into the mix some exercise, regular movement and eat real food and I’d say you are probably going to be living a full and contented life. At least your body and mind will be thanking you for it.
Why is being outside in nature so good?
Various studies have supported theories which are gaining more and more traction, in particular ‘attention restoration’ and ‘stress recovery’ theories. There is strong evidence linking exposure to natural environments with recovery from physiological stress and mental fatigue.
In our information overloaded societies we are always ‘screening’ with a bombardment of stimuli therefore the mind and body need rest. It has been shown that getting outside in our natural environment provides that rest.
Humans have evolved in the natural world. One could say that all evolution is in fact nature growing. For example there has been significant work by Japanese researchers studying the physiological effects that the smells and other sensory inputs in nature have on humans. Research showed the Japanese Cedar tree smell resulted in a decrease both blood pressure and activity in the prefrontal cortext.
The frontal lobe, the part of our brain that’s hyper-engaged in modern life, deactivates a little when you are outside. Alpha waves, which indicate a calm but alert state, grow stronger. When psychologists talk about flow there seems to be a lot of alpha engagement there. Buddhist monks, meditators, are also great at engaging alpha waves.
Get outside for a run and you get the best of both worlds. Science has shown and continues to do so that good physical and mental health is nutrition, movement and nature.
A Stanford study compared brain waves of participants doing a 90 min walk in park compared to a walk on a street. Park walkers showed significantly less depressive rumination. The prefrontal cortex quietened down and from their own reports, the park walkers beat themselves up less.
I have to mention it, you know what I am going to say… get outside and get out of the gym. Gyms are great for having weights, trainers and other equipment in one room but they are not great for health, for motivation, for stress relief, for happiness, for results (no sustainability)… for your body or mind. So go outside and play!
One poll found that only about 10 percent of American teens spend time outside every day. Another separate poll showed 70 percent of today’s mothers in the U.S. recalled playing outdoors every day as children but only 26 percent of them say their kids play outside daily.
We are denying our children something fundamental by not encouraging them to get outdoors, get away from technology and to get out in nature.
There’s not that free, exploratory play that a lot of experts think children need in order to gain a strong sense of themselves and learn social skills and problem solving. Schools need to do more outdoor programs, this has been shown over and over again but it seems, in general, schools move so slowly towards positive change.
In the western world we have incredible wilderness spaces and national parks. Science is showing that when we spend time in those spaces, it can be tremendously helpful for our sense of self, for problem solving, social bonding, and rites of passage. Why don’t we give this gift to our children, to ourselves! If we get outside ourselves won’t that at least mean we are being a good role model for our children?
More research if you are into scientific justification stuff like I am (loads of links):
- Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School recently analysed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress.
- In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines in people who lived within about a half mile of green space.
- In 2015 an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. It found those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a US$20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space.
- Playing ‘natural sounds’ affects the bodily systems that control the flight-or-fright and rest-digest autonomic nervous systems, with associated effects in the resting activity of the brain, new research shows.
- Researchers have identified a simple intervention that may help reduce levels of violence in maximum security prisons. Inmates who viewed nature videos showed reduced levels of aggression and were less likely to be disciplined than those in similar cellblocks, according to new research.
- Protecting the environment can be as easy as telling your kids to go outdoors and play, according to a new study.
- People who visit parks for 30 minutes or more each week are much less likely to have high blood pressure or poor mental health than those who don’t, according to new research by Australian and UK environmental scientists.
- Strong evidence between exposure to natural environments and recovery from physiological stress and mental fatigue, giving support to both Stress Recovery Theory and Attention Restoration Theory.
A topic of another blog post, something I have heard about on various occasions that warrants some research, is that being in nature increases our empathy and altruism. Maybe nature makes us nicer as well as calmer!
Where do you go to get outside in nature?
If you don’t do it enough, why not?
Leave me a note in the comments, I’d be super interested to know.