Would you like to improve your cognitive functioning, brain activity, blood pressure, sleep, and mental health without spending a lot of money or risking an interaction with the medications you are already taking? Take a hike. Or do anything that gets you outside. Public health researchers have found strong evidence that getting out into nature is beneficial for many human struggles, including a range of mental and physical health concerns.
Restore Your Ability to Focus
Some scientists theorize that being in nature can help alleviate the intense mental fatigue and short attention spans created by modern life. This concept is called attention restoration theory (ART). Other theories propose that nature helps us function at our best because this is where our ancestors evolved. A related theory claims that spending time in nature triggers a physiological response that lowers our stress levels, and this is why we are better able to handle daily life when we get regular time outdoors.
How Long Should I Be Outside?
The more time outdoors the better, but one study found that even spending less than one minute outside to appreciate nature’s beauty helped students to make fewer mistakes when completing an attention-draining task. Two hours per week of outdoor time seemed to be the minimum needed to consistently boost mental health, according to one study of 20,000 people in Europe. The findings of this study seemed to be consistent across different occupations, ethnic groups, socioeconomic statuses, and physical limitations.
Though some people love to set aside time for extended camping trips and other excursions into nature, which can be wonderful, science seems to be finding that there is greater value to having short-lived but frequent contact with the outdoors than in fewer, more prolonged periods.
Blue is the New Green
Green space is a widely understood term, meant to refer to outdoor areas with plant life, like parks, forests, and gardens. The concept of blue space may be new to you. Blue space refers to areas where people can get close to water, such as ponds, rivers, and the ocean. Some water-based activities that can be beneficial include:
- Walking along a beach
- Admiring a waterfall
- Sitting quietly near a body of water
This may be why it is so common for relaxation and meditation recordings to feature sounds of water to help people de-stress and fall asleep.
The Power of Natural Light
Aside from green space and blue space, another facet of nature that can improve our well-being is light. Spending some time in the sunshine can trigger the release of serotonin and Vitamin D, which can improve mood and focus, relieve stress, and enhance sleep quality. People who get adequate sunlight also struggle less with depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. This does not require spending hours in the sun; just 10-15 minutes per day of sunlight can be beneficial. If you struggle to get even that amount of sunlight, a light box might offer similar benefits and is sometimes used to treat seasonal affective disorder (also known as seasonal depression).
What if I Cannot Access Outdoor Space?
If you live in a more urban setting or have a really busy schedule, you may not have easy access to nature’s beauty on a consistent basis. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the health benefits of the natural world. Evidence indicates that the sounds of nature can also be beneficial. Listening to recordings of crickets chirping or crashing waves led to better results for cognitive testing than listening to sounds more common in a busy city. It might also be possible to bring some nature into your life with houseplants or a container garden, in whatever outdoor space you may have available, even if it is somewhat limited.
What is Nature Therapy?
Nature therapy, also sometimes called ecotherapy or green therapy, is a therapeutic intervention led by a mental health professional that integrates nature into the person’s treatment plan. This can be done in a variety of different ways, with modifications possible for people who may have mobility issues or other barriers to accessing nature.
At Highland Hospital in West Virginia, we encourage our patients to optimize the benefits of our therapeutic interventions by supplementing them with complementary practices, including yoga, meditation, and spending time in nature.