The Nature Rx
Since Richard Louv’s ground-breaking book, Last Child in the Woods; Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder, there has been a growing body of evidence linking time spent in nature to remarkable health benefits, from improved mood, concentration and cognitive function in adults and children, to improved immunity and decreased risk of heart disease and cancer. Yet, our 21st century lifestyle leads us to spend more and more time indoors, dependent on computers and devices to run our daily lives. We sit in cars, we work in offices, and we do our walking on a treadmill in the gym.
There is no substitute for spending time in nature. We can’t “program” ourselves to health. No matter how many bodily functions we monitor and track, how many “steps” we take, pounds we lift, or minutes spent in meditation with our favorite app. Could technologies be a useful tool to improve health? Perhaps. But they are definitely not the answer.
Here are just 5 of the many benefits of spending time in nature:
1. Spending time in nature boosts happiness.
Spending time in nature promotes relaxation and a sense of calm while increasing energy and vitality. People who spend time in nature report better quality of sleep, feeling less stress and negativity, and feeling just plain happier. Nature is a powerful antidote to depression and anxiety disorders in children and adults.
2. Being in nature makes us smarter and more creative.
Concentration, memory and cognitive function are improved in natural environments. Nature has profound positive effects on children diagnosed with impulsivity, hyperactivity, and attention-deficit disorder. Creativity improves as well. In one study, a group of backpackers was found to be 50% more creative after 4 days on the trail. But creativity peaks at just 3 days of really getting away from it all and immersing yourself in nature.
3. Sunlight is good for you.
Your skin needs sunlight to begin the process of creating and activating vitamin D. Studies suggest that as little as 5 to 15 minutes of direct exposure to the face, hands and arms is enough for your body to create the vitamin D that it needs every day. Vitamin D is essential in many metabolic processes throughout the body and can protect against osteoporosis, heart disease and even cancer to name a few. Sure, you could get your vitamin D in fortified foods or supplements, but it may be in a different form and not as helpful as what your body makes. And yes, too much of a good thing can be bad, so protect against too much sun exposure with hats and sunscreen.
4. Nature gets your body moving.
People in nature tend to be more active. Movement gets the blood flowing, improves flexibility and strength and lubricates the joints. Increased activity has positive effects on obesity, blood pressure and heart-disease. And research shows that people who exercise outdoors are more likely to stick to a future routine than those who exercised at the gym. That’s important because the best exercise is the one that you will do!
5. Communing with nature connects you with something bigger.
Have you ever experienced something in nature so unexpected, so large or so powerful - say the force of a waterfall, the enormity of solar eclipse, or the vastness of the view from a mountain peak – that you felt profoundly moved and transformed by the experience? Scientists call that a state of awe, an emotion that can have profoundly positive effects of people. Awe prompts people to direct their concern away from the self and toward everything else. After an awe experience, people act more generously and ethically and often feel deeply connected to others and to the world.
For many, spending time in nature is a spiritual experience that brings a sense of serenity, peace and calm. In fact, the brain waves of people in nature are similar to those of people meditating. When we take the time to contemplate and cultivate our place in the natural world, we find that we are transformed and inspired to live our lives in greater harmony and balance with others and with the earth.
The good news is that you don’t have to be an extreme athlete or wait until your next vacation to enjoy the benefits of spending time in nature. In his new book, Vitamin N. The essential guide to a nature rich life, Richard Louv provides a comprehensive handbook packed with practical information on ways to connect with the natural world.
As for me, no matter how many phone calls I need to return, emails I should read, or chart notes I need to finish, I always make time for my lunchtime walk around the pond at the Community Center Park across from the office. I know that my daily dose of nature will leave me feeling calm, focused and energized for the rest of my day.