Clinical Editor: Megan Dodson, PA-C
With the rise of technology, people are spending more and more time indoors. So much, in fact, that this day and age is increasingly being referred to as the “indoor generation”, with several studies estimating that Americans spend about 90% of their time inside.
As tempting as it may be to lounge on the couch or stay home with air conditioning and wifi, however, there’s a reason they call it the great outdoors. Spending time in nature has been linked to a number of physical and mental health benefits, from improving mood to reduced risk of disease. And you don’t have to go to extremes to reap the health benefits of nature; just a little bit of time in fresh air and sunlight can improve your well-being. Even 20 to 30 minutes a day can make a difference. No cold plunge or Everest-climb necessary.
If you need inspiration to get out of the house a little bit more, look no further. From your heart to your mind, here are just a few of the many ways nature can improve your health.
1. Reduces stress, anxiety, and depression
If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “get some fresh air”, you likely already know just how relaxing the outdoors can be. Getting outside can be a great way to reset, recharge, and take your mind off mentally draining tasks — and there’s research to support these mental health benefits. A 2019 study in Frontiers of Psychology, found that as little as 20 minutes outside — whether it’s spent exercising or just sitting— can significantly lower stress hormone levels. Likewise, a number of studies have noted lower stress and anxiety levels, as well as reduced depression symptoms, in individuals who’ve spent time in forest and natural areas compared to those who’ve walked in urban neighborhoods.
Another 2019 study saw “significantly better mental health outcomes” for individuals who had access to green spaces. It appears the universal conclusion seems to be that time in nature equates to more positive emotion, and less depression.
2. Improves memory and cognition
Ready to sharpen your mind a bit? Head to a park. Research has shown that spending time outdoors can boost creativity, improve focus and concentration, and enhance memory. A University of Michigan study, for example, found that short-term memory and attention spans improved in people by 20% after just an hour interacting with nature. Another found that children with ADHD were able to concentrate better after just 20 minutes in the park. Even the sounds of nature (like chirping crickets and birdsong) can support cognitive function.
3. Boosts heart health
Time outdoors can also benefit your heart health. One primary way it does this is through exercise. Being in nature promotes and encourages physical activity, which plays a significant role in your overall well-being. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), regular physical activity can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, as well as improve circulation and strengthen your heart. Likewise, exercise is one of the best ways to reduce the chance of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But the heart health benefits of nature aren’t limited to exercise. As mentioned above, time outdoors is also associated with lower stress levels, which also impact cardiovascular health. Numerous studies have found that time outdoors can lower cortisol and blood pressure levels, as well as heart rates — all of which are factors for cardiovascular disease. And you don’t have to be a serious backpacker, or go off the grid camping to make it happen. A recent Australian study, for instance, saw fewer cases of high blood pressure among adults who spent just 30 minutes in green spaces each week.
4. Supports longevity
Getting outside might also add more years on to your life. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that greater exposure to green space was associated with a 12% lower mortality rate. This is in line with a number of studies that have linked time in nature to a reduced risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even some cancers. If you look at the Blue Zones (five areas around the world in which the populations have a much longer lifespan), you’ll notice that these populations spend a great amount of time outside. The Italians in Sardinia enjoy daily passeggiata after meals, in which they go on long walks outside, while the Nicoyans of Costa Rica farm and ride horseback.
5. Enhances sleep
If you want to sleep soundly at night, get out during the day. A study published in Preventative Medicine found that more time outdoors is associated with better quality sleep. Likewise,a growing body of research has found that increased exposure to natural sunlight helps regulate the body’s internal block or circadian rhythm. One U.K. study reported that more natural light is associated with enhanced sleep, while another found that natural light can help you fall asleep earlier, stay asleep longer, and improve sleep quality. Meanwhile, studies have also found the reverse to be true - a lack of natural light during the day can lead to sleep problems at night.
There are so many benefits to gain from simply experiencing the natural world around us. In an era in which we’re so attached to computers, phones, and televisions (and increasingly sedentary, indoors), there are a variety of benefits to be reaped once we open that door and step outside. Go for a walk or jog, pack a picnic, get out for a round of fetch with your dog, plan a beach day, bring an easel outside to paint in the yard, start some gardening, play a pickup game of soccer or basketball, or take your lunch outside your office. Your brain and body will thank you.
Have more questions about nature and your health? Our primary care team is here to help. At One Medical, we aim to provide exceptional care designed around you and your unique health needs. Sign up today to book a same or next day appointment — in person or over video — through our app.
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