Meet Your New Doctor: Nature

As a child, nature was my single greatest obsession. Though I wasn’t necessarily aware of it, my only focus in life seemed to be immersing myself as deeply as possible in the outdoors. Running through the trees in the forest behind my house with no destination in mind. Digging up worms with my bare, grubby hands. Dueling with my brothers with formidable blades comprised of the finest sticks we could find. The backyard was an entire universe, and we were intrepid explorers.

Today, nature calls to me, but like many of us I am weighed down with responsibilities, obligations, deadlines, and an apartment in the city. And although my life is fulfilling and often exciting, I can’t help but feeling sometimes that there should be something more.

As often as I can, I try to get back into nature’s arms. It feels deeply nurturing, like a form of therapy. When I’m back in the woods, on a lake, in a field, wherever the elements may be gracing my skin, I feel whole. The smell of soil brings me back to being five years old and digging to reach China through the center of the Earth. The crunching of leaves beneath my feet pulls me back to running aimlessly through the woods, stopping occasionally for an enchanted, silent encounter with a deer or a fox.

Simply re-entering this magic of the outdoors is a reminder to me of what matters, and how much what I worry about day to day doesn’t really matter. It feels nurturing, reinvigorating and revitalizing. But what are we actually feeling when we’re in the great outdoors? Is there any science behind the calmness and euphoria nature can bring us?

The science is out.

Researchers all over the world have been increasingly looking into the benefits nature can bring our bodies and our minds through rigorous scientific methodology. And the evidence is abundantly clear; spending time outdoors has significant health benefits on our minds and our bodies that can increase happiness, focus, and longevity.

Let’s begin with research out of the University of Michigan. A 2014 study shows extensive proof that group nature walks are linked to significantly lower rates of depression, lower levels of stress perception, and enhanced overall mental health and well being. These effects were especially amplified for individuals who had recently experienced traumatic life events, like the loss of a loved one.

The best part? Taking a walk outside is free. With people spending tens of billions around the world on trying to better their mental health, it’s encouraging to see that there is a highly effective, no-cost option for many right outside their front doors.

Further research has shown that extended time outdoors gives the mind a break in a way similar to meditation. This pause from stressful thought allows the brain to rest, and restores focus afterwards. This effect is so powerful that one study found even brief time spent viewing a green roof in a city rather than a concrete roof was found to increase focus levels.

Of mind and body.

But the benefits of nature extend beyond just the mind. Research at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School found that women who spent six hours in a forest over the course of two days had an increase in virus and cancer fighting white blood cells, and a decrease in stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These effects were consistent across all participants in the study, and lasted for more than a week after the experience.

Stress is something that many of us, unfortunately, experience more often than we’d like. And while moderate levels of occasional stress can actually be useful, too many of us are struggling with chronic stress, a much more formidable form that has clear negative impacts on our immune systems. If a simple walk in the woods can work wonders to alleviate this stress, why wouldn’t we be prioritizing outdoors time?

Simple pleasures.

But of course, we all know there are even more simplistic reasons to be outside. The effect of sunlight on our bodies and our minds is proven to have many benefits. Vitamin D is something so many of us need more of, and it can boost our energy, help us sleep better, and even help stave off things like cancer.

And for those of us who work indoors or an office, which is of course just about everyone, regular exercise can boost our metabolism, increase energy, relieve stress, and help our muscles fight back against the knots and aches that form when we sit all day.

There are simply so many reasons to spend time outdoors. We know it boosts our immunity and lowers stress. It can help our focus and revitalize our bodies. It can elevate our energy levels and also help us sleep better.

But finally, and importantly, time spent in nature is often a beautifully simple way to reconnect with people that are important to us, or to simply reconnect with ourselves.

A moment to rest.

The modern world is busy, and it can feel like a bombardment of media, noise, lights, deadlines and stress. When we’re in nature, the calmness and beauty surrounding us removes all of those things. We are submerged in the natural environment that all of our ancestors until recently spent their entire lives in. It’s no wonder that reentering that environment isn’t just healthy for us; it simply feels so right.

Every system in our body, be it digestive, immune, respiratory, or neurological, has a positive response to nature. The sun embraces us, and the breeze wraps itself around us, bringing with it the scents of the natural world. It is, in a way, where we belong. And the more we can immerse ourselves back into mother nature’s arms, the better off we will be as individuals and as a society.

Take some time for the outdoors. Schedule ahead. Make plans with friends. Find places near you where you can escape into a green space. Even just for an hour or two, prioritizing time away from the chaos of the modern world is a rewarding goal to strive for. The serenity of nature will always uplift us, and its impacts enrich every other moment of our lives. The bottom line? Get out into those open spaces, and let nature embrace you every moment you can. The science is out, and you’ll thank yourself later.