Doctor’s Orders: Go Outside

Recent study reveals benefits of exposure to nature.

Posted Jun 26, 2019

My parents live in a suburb of Maryland that is lush with greenery and has easy access to walking trails and parks. As part of my regular practice when I visit them, I take my puppy on long hikes on trails teeming with greenery and wildlife that we do not have regular access to at home in Brooklyn. In addition to the enthusiasm my dog shows at discovering all of the plants and trees on our hikes—and the occasional deer or bats at night—I find that these hikes enable me to feel grounded in a way unmatched by any other practices that I engage in.

Imagine my pleasure at the recently published study out this month from Scientific Reports revealing that spending at least two hours a week in nature is associated with positive health and well-being (White et al., 2019). I was not at all surprised by these findings, although it is always encouraging when science is able to quantify something that we believe to be true or have experienced for ourselves. Specifically, the researchers identify that at least two hours in nature a week is associated with positive self-reported health and well-being.

One of the benefits I have experienced from my regular walks with my dog is that when we are out, I am digitally unplugged. The ability to unplug from a screen and commune with nature can be restorative. When I am in town here, I regularly meet a good friend for nightly walks with my dog, and always leave my phone in the car. While she brings her phone in case of emergencies, she has it on airplane mode, so neither of us is distracted by our devices. In addition to giving one another the gift of our complete attention as we walk and talk, we are also able to share in moments of stillness and silence in which we breathe in the air and take in our surroundings. On one of our evening walks, we were able to observe clusters of fireflies lighting up the trees around us, and the occasional bats soaring high above us and up in the starlit sky. The feeling of being surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature was restorative for both of us, and as we walked back to her house, we commiserated on how grounded we felt after our evening excursions.

We are all immersed in an increasingly digital, fast-paced culture in which we wear our busyness as a badge of honor and bemoan never having enough time for our growing to-do lists. "Self-care" is a laughable concept to many, who may feel they lack the privilege or resources to tend to their own needs with so many other demands pulling at them. I believe that White et. al. (2019) revealed a basic truth with their recently published study—that often, the solutions to our increasingly complicated life problems is to strip back our exposures and get back to basics. In this case, communing with nature is a simple—and cost-effective—way to restore both mind and body. The physical activities we engage in outdoors need not be complicated: A simple stroll through the neighborhood or our own backyards can be enough to receive the benefits.

In fact, the researchers discuss the potential public health implications of their findings. They note that for their sample, even those who did not necessarily live in areas with great exposure to nature were able to achieve at least two hours of exposure per week by seeking out outdoor spaces, be it on weekend excursions, drives to parks, etc. The point is that nature offers much potential for restoration and wellness, and if it isn’t in our own backyards, we can seek it out in other places. What a timely scientific finding given that summer is upon us, and the warmer weather beckons for us to explore the abundance that nature has to offer.

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2019

References

White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B.W., Hartig, T., Warber, S., Bone, A., Depledge, M.H., & Fleming, L.E. (2019, June 13). Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Scientific Reports, 9. Retrieved on June 26, 2019 from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44097-3