Want to be Healthier and Happier? The Psychological Benefits of Nature

General Medical

young woman sitting on a tree trunk at sunset, enjoying nature

Do you love escaping the hustle and bustle of city life to unwind somewhere quiet and leafy? Many of us do, without realising that spending time in the great outdoors actually has proven mental and physical health benefits.

Numerous research studies show that spending time in nature provides health and psychological benefits. Even a short time in nature can lower blood pressure and increase your levels of physical activity. If you experience low moods or depression, a visit to a natural environment allows you to put aside your stresses and clear your mind while you take in the beautiful scenery.

Whether you have just one day or whole month available to escape the city, there are plenty of ways to indulge in nature. Let’s see how you can spend more time enjoying the great outdoors and what the benefits are:

How Can Nature Improve your Health?

Getting outdoors and enjoying nature can improve your health both in the short-term by reducing blood pressure and cortisol levels and long-term by lowering your risk of cancer or disease.  

Lower Blood Pressure

A University of Queensland researcher conducted a survey of 1,538 Brisbane residents and found participants who didn’t spend 30 minutes or more per week in nature were 9% more likely to have high blood pressure. Reducing blood pressure can save people from taking daily medication and cuts the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes complications and eye disease.   

More Physical Activity

If you are outdoors, you are more than likely being more active than if you were indoors. A small amount of moderate to vigorous daily activity leads to weight loss, lower levels of inflammation, a reduced risk of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. You are also getting a dose of vitamin D from the sun which could reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Stress Relief

Spending time outdoors can decrease cortisol levels – cortisol is the hormone marker of stress. In a Japanese nature therapy study, 420 people sitting in 35 forests had cortisol levels that were 12.4% lower than the control group in an urban area. The forest dwellers also experienced a 5.8% lower heart rate and a 1.4% decrease in systolic blood pressure. An indicator of immune function increased by 56% by the second day. Retested one month later after returning to their urban life and they still had an impressive 23% increase.  

How Can Nature Improve your Mood?

In recent years the medical world has discovered the power of nature in preventing and treating psychological problems. Doctors are recommending people leave their homes and get outdoors to reduce feelings of stress, anger or depression. People often report a greater sense of well-being after a healthy dose of nature.

Reduce Depression

A University of Essex study researched the effects of walking through a country park by a group of people suffering from depression. Ninety percent of the participants reported feeling higher self-esteem and three-quarters felt less depressed. For another group who had taken a walk through an indoor shopping centre, only 44% said they felt higher levels of self-esteem. Feelings of depression rose in 22% of the indoor walking group, and 33% reported no change in their level of depression after the indoor walk.

Recalibrate the Brain

Spending time in nature can reduce mental fatigue. Being exposed to a restorative environment can allow the brain’s energy levels to reset. Spending time in nature can help the mind focus better. A study of people who were experiencing waning attention levels divided the group into two and sent one half on a walk through the city and the other half through nature. After returning from the walk, everyone completed a proofreading exercise. The nature group scored the highest.  

More Enthusiasm and Relaxed about Work

When your concentration levels start to dip after a hard morning of work, a quick walk outside can be enough to refresh the grey matter. A Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports reported on a study where people who left the office for a 30-minute walk three times a week felt less tense and nervous, and more enthusiastic and relaxed.

Man enjoying gardening, sniffing basil plant

Some Ideas for Spending Time in Nature

Despite the mounting evidence of positive outcomes for spending time outdoors, most of us still spend the vast majority of our time cooped up indoors. Our man-made environments might keep us safe from the elements, but they aren’t doing us any favours when it comes to our health and psychological well-being.

With our mild winters and long summers, there is no reason for Aussies to spend so much time indoors. We don’t want to have the same dismal statistic which showed Americans across 44 states spend just 2% of their time outdoors, 92% indoors and six per cent in transit.

Spending time in nature has been given new terms like “ecotherapy” and “Vitamin N” (for nature). But you don’t need a fancy name for getting outside and enjoying the fresh air - just get out there and do it!

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Half an Hour is All You Need

Even a half-hour lunch break can be used to enjoy the health benefits of nature. Take a little time out by shutting everything else out of your mind and take in your surrounds.  

Eat Lunch Outside: Take a break from the office and forget about work completely. Sit on a patch of grass, walk along the river or through some gardens.

Go for a Walk: Even if you are in the middle of the city, you can still take some time out to enjoy as many natural assets as possible. Most city planners have recognised the importance of green spaces and included small patches of trees or grass around the city.

Walking Meetings: Rather than sitting around a desk for a meeting, suggest your colleagues get out for some fresh air and enjoy a walking meeting.

Take your Yoga or Meditation Outside: You can increase the benefits of yoga or meditation by finding a spot outdoors rather than indoors. Move your mat outside and breath in the fresh air.

Watch a Sunset or Sunrise: Walk or drive to a spot you know gives you a good view and watch the colourful spectacle.

If You Have A Few Hours

If you have a free hour or two, make an effort to get outside into nature rather than hanging out on the couch. Chances are you will feel better and happier too knowing you have used your time wisely.

Do Some Gardening: Take some time out to smell the roses. Grab your gardening gloves, and secateurs then head to the front yard to give it a little TLC. Prune, water and admire the different plants and flowers you have growing there. At the end of your session, you will have had some fresh air, taken a moment to respect nature’s work and as an added bonus, your home will have added street appeal!   

Go for a Walk Along the Coast: Take in the smell of the salty air as you take off your shoes to feel the sand between your toes and the cold seawater on your legs. If it’s warm enough, go for a swim and treat all your senses. Grab your snorkel so you can get in touch with the natural world under the waterline.

Go to an Open Garden: If you love a beautifully manicured garden, but your own isn’t quite up to scratch, then visit a private garden. My Open Garden lists a few open gardens and events in each state, otherwise, keep an eye on social media for gardens that are open in your capital city. If you can’t find a private garden that is currently open to the public, go and rediscover one of your city’s botanical parks.

family bike riding to a picnic location, enjoying natures scenery

One Whole Day

If you have a day free on the weekend, try spending the entire day out in nature with family or friends. You will be doing your health a favour and spending quality time with people you love.

Go on a Picnic: there are probably plenty of great locations not far from home. Google local picnic locations, ask friends for recommendations or check out your state’s national park website. Pack some lunch and a blanket on a sunny day.  

Visit an Area you Haven’t Seen Before: choose a green space you have been meaning to visit whether it be the hills, river, beach or dam. Take a drive with the family and pack your walking shoes to investigate the area.  

Go Fruit PickingPick Your Own (PYO) has grown in popularity in recent years. Google Pick Your Own or U-Pick farms in your state or capital city. Look up the fruits that are currently available, grab a bucket and head out. You will be enjoying time walking through the orchards and taking home some healthy fresh fruit to enjoy for the next week or two.

Spend a Day Decorating your Home with Indoor Plants: if you don’t have a lot of green space nearby, plant some trees in your garden or surround yourself with indoor plants. Visit the nursery and pick a selection of trees and plants that will thrive in the areas around your house. A Canadian study showed those residents surrounded by trees had better heart and metabolic health.

One Week

If you are planning on taking some leave from work or looking to entertain the kids on school holidays, get away from the house and holiday in a location that offers plenty of back to nature opportunities.

Go Camping: Spending the week in a tent or caravan allows you to enjoy the great outdoors to the max! You can choose to stay at a big caravan park and get your fill of nature by making day trips to surrounding lakes, rivers, beaches or forests. Otherwise, you can completely immerse yourself in an isolated free camping site, where you will spend plenty of time outside. Try to experience all the natural attractions and activities the area has to offer. Visit forests, rivers, rocks, lakes, mountains, and lookouts for a wide variety in everything mother nature has to provide.

Take an Overseas Holiday: Australia has a wide variety of green spaces to experience, but there is a big wide world out there. By leaving the country, you may be able to appreciate nature better when you have never seen anything like it. A snow-capped mountain or dense rainforest will awaken all of your senses and allow you to marvel at mother nature.

Redecorate your Home Inspired by Nature: If you want to surrounded by nature even when you can’t be outdoors how about bringing it inside? If you already have indoor plants dotted around the house, take it to the next level by installing an indoor vertical garden. Fill it with herbs or a selection of low light plants. If the vertical garden sounds like too much maintenance, fill your walls with botanical prints. Visit Etsy, search for your favourite plants and order a print. If you want to fill the whole wall, consider a nature-scape wallpaper. Modern printing technology means you can enjoy a high-quality picture of a rainforest, ocean, waterfall, mountain or sunset day and night without leaving home.    

If you want to improve your physical and mental health, make a date to get back to nature. Once you have enjoyed one or two dates, turn it into a habit. Pick a few activities that you can do each week. Your mind and body will thank you.  

Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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