To your good health: Nature is for more than just nature-lovers

Of all of the places you’ve enjoyed being outdoors, imagine your favorite. Is it a quiet garden with dappled sunlight? A crisp, fall morning with colorful leaves crunching underfoot? Silent snow falling all around you? Ocean waves crashing on a sandy beach? Whatever your favorite outdoor place—even if you don’t love the outdoors—chances are it’s good for you.
Research into nature’s effect on our health has grown over the years and is finding that, no surprise, it’s good for us. Of course, what is meant by the term “nature” or “natural environment” in healthcare research may be difficult to define. Yet, studies suggest that despite various definitions, we see improvements in health and reduction in healthcare use with exposure to nature.[1]

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But how does nature help us? Most of the nature and health research is focused on a few ideas as to why nature helps humans. One proposed mechanism is improved air quality. Plants not only reduce carbon dioxide and increase oxygen in the air, but also reduce the amount of air pollutants, both indoors and outdoors.

Spending time outdoors also encourages physical activity—which is strongly linked to improvements in health. The spaces that may help people be more active are those outdoor spaces that are perceived as safe. Additionally, exercising outside may be even better for you than exercising inside! A study comparing physical activity saw greater improvements in emotional well-being in those who engaged in physical activity outdoors.[2]
This last point brings us to another proposed mechanism of how nature helps us: that nature may provide a way for humans to deal with stress, both by escaping stressors and resetting cognitive patterns. It’s a beneficial double whammy!

If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few easy ways to get some time in nature:
– Get a house plant or put a plant in your workspace. Studies show that even indoor plants can have beneficial effects.
– Take breaks outside.
– Set up walking dates instead of coffee dates or happy hour meet-ups.
– If you have a dog, take it on an extra walk (or two!) every day.
– Explore activities that take you outside. Some may even be low-impact, like birdwatching or nature sketching, while others may be more intense like mountain biking or surfing.

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[1] Hartig T, Mitchell R, De vries S, Frumkin H. Nature and health. Annu Rev Public Health. 2014;35:207-28.
[2] Pasanen TP, Tyrväinen L, Korpela KM. The relationship between perceived health and physical activity indoors, outdoors in built environments, and outdoors in nature. Appl Psychol Health Well Being. 2014;6(3):324-46.

Dr. Lorraine & Dr. Katy (30 Posts)

Drs. Katy and Lorraine have been colleagues and close friends since 2013. More recently, they collaborated on a series of blog posts to get the word out about the most powerful ways to get and stay healthy. Dr. Katy practices in mid-coast Maine and Dr. Lorraine practices in eastern Oregon.


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