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Stressed Out? How Nature Can Restore Your Health

Research suggests green spaces may protect you from stress-related diseases.

The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature. Joseph Campbell

Source: tlfagan/Pixabay

Yesterday I climbed a mountain then looked down at a pristine, azure blue lake. I saw the birds and the butterflies looked up at a clear sky, took in the beauty of a red flower and rested in the shade of a tall pine. All the stress and toil in my life seemed to melt away in those moments as I mindfully breathed in the beauty all around me. I felt deep feelings of gratitude, connection, compassion, and awe.

Effects of urban living and modern lifestyles

We live in an age in which there are fewer opportunities to connect with nature. About 80 percent of Americans and half of all people globally live in urban areas (United Nations, 2015). Surveys show that Americans spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors or riding in vehicles. Children, teens, and adults spend many hours a day watching TV, surfing the internet, or gaming. We are less likely to go camping or fishing than we used to, and children spend less time playing outdoors than they used to. Living in large metropolitan areas exposes us to stressors like traffic, crowding, air pollution, rising housing costs, or noise.

Green spaces can reduce stress-related diseases

While urban environments create stress there is evidence that spending time in nature or in green spaces helps decrease the stress response. Research shows that exposure to natural green spaces, defined as gardens or parks within urban areas or street greenery or undeveloped land with natural vegetation (e,g. grass and trees), makes us less stressed, happier and healthier. In fact, exposure to green spaces has been linked to reductions in the most common stress-related diseases or conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic pain, and obesity. People who spend more time in nature or in urban green spaces sleep better, are more physically active, and report less anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, and greater satisfaction with life. As psychologists, we often focus on within-person factors, like personality or diet, as predictors of long-term health and well-being, yet research increasingly shows that the physical and social environments in which we live may be the most important determinant of our life quality and quantity. Green spaces have even been linked to longevity. Those who have more exposure are less likely to die from all causes within a given timeframe.

How much nature exposure do we need?

A UK study published this month in Scientific Reports examined how large a dose of nature was needed to reap the physical and mental health benefits. The researchers interviewed more than 20,000 subjects about their activity in the prior week. It turns out that spending just two hours a week in a park, wooded area, or beach was beneficial to health and wellbeing. It didn’t make a difference if this exposure was all in one dose or spread out over several days. Also, the benefits of nature exposure were seen among both healthy people and those with chronic diseases or disabilities. Surprisingly, spending much larger amounts of time in nature had similar effects than spending just two hours a week. Results are preliminary because they did not do a longer-term follow-up assessment.

Why do green spaces make us healthier?

Recently, researchers have been trying to understand why exposure to green spaces or spending time in nature is so vital to our long-term health. They have studied a number of factors that could explain the relationship including:

  • more physical activity (we are more active when outdoors)
  • heat reduction (high temperatures make us more susceptible to disease)
  • less air pollution
  • mental health benefits (depression can adversely affect our health)
  • more social and community connectedness (more opportunity to interact, prosocial feelings)
  • Improved attention span and self-discipline (presumably leading to a healthier lifestyle)
  • reduced physiological and psychological stress
  • improved immunity (because of exposure to a more biodiverse environment)

Take-home message

Spending time walking or hanging out in nature is not a luxury but an important part of a healthy lifestyle, like a good diet, mental health care, and regular exercise. If you live in a dense, urban area with few natural opportunities to spend time in green spaces, try looking at nature pictures or watching nature videos on YouTube. You can even use mental imagery to conjure up an image of spending time on your favorite beach or walking in a forest. To make the image more vivid and engaging, focus on your senses (what you might see, hear, smell, taste, or feel). Research studies show that even vicarious exposure to nature scenes can be stress-reducing.

Hartig, T., Mitchell, R., de Vries, S., and Frumkin, H. (2014). Nature and health. Annu. Rev. Public Health 35, 207–228. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032013-182443

Berto R. (2014). The role of nature in coping with psycho-physiological stress: a literature review on restorativeness. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 4(4), 394–409. doi:10.3390/bs4040394

Frumkin, H., Bratman, G. N., Breslow, S. J., Cochran, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr, Lawler, J. J., … Wood, S. A. (2017). Nature Contact and Human Health: A Research Agenda. Environmental health perspectives, 125(7), 075001. doi:10.1289/EHP1663

MP White, I Alcock, J Grellier, BW Wheeler, T Hartig, SL Warber, A Bone, …(2019, June)
Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing Scientific reports 9 (1), 7730.

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