Nature’s Medicine: The Health Benefits of Being Outdoors

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In our society, we tend to focus on things that can be quantified, such as how much money we have, how big our house is and where we are on the corporate ladder. Things that cannot easily be measured, such as the importance of nature, are placed at a lesser “value.” Scientists are overcoming this by finding meaning in nature in a way we can all understand and place value on: our health.

Quantifying Health

autumn walk

Image courtesy of jen collins.

We all want to be healthy, and we spend millions on our health care needs. In 2012, the California Healthcare Foundation found that the U.S. spent an average of $8,915 per person on health care. Scientists are putting research where their mouth is — quantifying the health benefits of nature (oftentimes free) in significant ways. For example:

  • Studies have shown spending time in and viewing nature can provide psychological benefits such as improving concentration and positively affecting your mood.
  • Even as little as five minutes in nature can make you happier and lessen feelings of anger.
  • Nature can provide restorative effects such as reducing stress, which can boost your overall immunity.
  • Interacting in nature has been shown to decrease the severity of symptoms of children with attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Nature’s Classroom

Students have better behavior in the classroom if they are allowed to spend time in the outdoors every day. Just viewing nature from a classroom can affect a student’s well-being. For his dissertation, Rodney Matsuoka studied landscapes at schools in Michigan and found schools with larger windows and more views of natural elements had students with:

  • higher standardized test scores
  • higher graduation rates
  • fewer reports of criminal behavior
  • higher rates of planning to attend college

Studies have also shown that hands-on contact with nature at a school can have multiple benefits to children’s mental, emotional and social health.

Natural Healing

walk in the park

Image courtesy of CEBImagery.

The impact nature has on medical patients is impressive.

  • Nature impacts physical well-being, reducing blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension.
  • Ecotherapy, also known as green therapy or earth-centered therapy, is healing through interaction with nature: using sunlight, sounds of nature and interactions within nature to aid and restore the human body faster than without.
  • Research has found patients in hospitals with a view of nature, a living plant in their room or interaction with a hospital garden heal faster.

And this research has been compiling for some time. A study in 1984 found that patients with a tree view through their window had shorter hospital stays, received fewer negative comments from nurses, took fewer analgesics and had slightly lower scores for post-surgical complications.

The benefits of nature may stem from the overall experience. Most green spaces have less noise and present a safe place that encourages exercise and an opportunity to socially interact with others. New research is also focusing on how long people need to be immersed in nature, and it shows that higher biodiversity in a park encourages people to stay longer. This leads to greater effects.

No matter why nature influences our well-being, the research is displaying a pattern that spending time in nature impacts our health in a positive manner. Support your local green spaces and think about taking your next lunch outing to the park. The short time spent outdoors may even improve your work back in the office.

Feature image courtesy of Thomas Mues

Read More:
Bring the Outdoors In: Make Your Apartment a Garden Sanctuary
10 Ways to Enjoy the Outdoors This Month
America’s Prettiest Natural Swimming Holes

Naima Montacer

Naima Montacer is an environmental writer and passionate teacher with a wildlife focused M.S. in Biology. Through her freelance writing and own environmental website at EnviroAdventures, she works to inspire and encourage others, to explore and connect with nature, and take small steps in their everyday lives to conserve energy and resources. Naima is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Texas Outdoor Writers Association.