HealthLifestyleWellbeing

The Benefits of Nature

Wellness Mama  August 11, 2016

How do you get the benefits of nature?

Beautiful foggy forest with magic light in the early morning

It seems intuitive that we like to spend time outdoors, but science has now identified some of the reasons we actually NEED time in a more natural setting. In fact, there is a term for this- Ecotherapy – that refers to the various physical and psychological benefits of being outside.

A 2009 study found that the closer someone lived to a green space or nature area, the healthier that person was likely to be. In fact, those who lived closest to a park, nature preserve or wooded area were less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression.

Another study found that those who spent time hiking or resting in a forest had measurably lower cortisol rates, heart rates and blood pressure. (1)

The University of Illinois conducted research that showed that children with ADD/ADHD experienced a reduction of symptoms after spending time outdoors (this ties in with a less well-studied theory that these disorders are at least partially “nature deficit disorders:”

In their most recent study, conducted on a nationwide scale, psychologists Andrea Taylor and Frances Kuo have found that children with the attention deficit hyperactive disorder, or ADHD, experienced a significant reduction in symptoms after they participated in activities in green settings. Whatever the activity—whether it was playing basketball or reading a book—the degree of relief from ADHD symptoms was tied to the greenness of the setting in which it took place, with relatively green settings like tree-lined streets, backyards and parks trumping the indoors or outdoor places that lacked greenery.(2)

Of course, just spending time in nature won’t be a silver bullet for children struggling with ADD/ADHD, but spending some (free!) family time outdoors is worth a try.

Other studies have found sleep improvements, better immune system function, and lower rates of stress-related disorders in those who spent regular time in nature.

Healthy Circadian Rhythm

Spending time outdoors, especially in the morning sunlight, may help reduce the risk of obesity. In fact, a study at Northwestern University found that the earlier a study participant got morning sunlight, the lower than participant’s BMI.

This correlation remained strong even after researchers adjusted for exercise levels, age, calorie intake and other factors that affect BMI. The reason? Getting sunlight in the morning helps keep cortisol levels and circadian rhythms in the right ranges.

The reverse correlation was also true, as exposure to light at night was a factor in gaining weight (another reason to make sure you have a dark sleep environment),  but as little as half an hour of sun exposure before noon was enough to have an effect on reducing body weight.

This effect is so pronounced, in fact, that my doctor recommended morning sunlight exposure as part of my protocol to help improve my cortisol levels and thyroid health.

Does indoor light work?

Bright morning light outdoors is typically thousands of “lux” a measure of illuminance that is essentially one lumen per square meter. Indoor light typically only measures a few hundred lux and doesn’t contain the broad spectrum of light needed to correctly support the body’s internal clock.

While things like 10,000 lux energy light lamps get closer to the level of outdoor brightness and are often used in the winter by those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, nothing beats the benefits of nature with true sunshine.

Best Way to Get the Benefits of Nature?

As you can tell, there are a lot of factors that may contribute to the benefits of nature, but we still may never understand completely why spending time outdoors has such profound psychological and physiological effects. We do know that time outdoors is important and that we aren’t getting enough.

There are things we can do to get partial benefits, but the best (and least expensive) option is just to get outside… in the morning… near trees.

My Solution?

Take a long morning walk (with my new puppy) on a greenway near our home where there are plenty of trees, wildflowers and even a small waterfall. I sometimes take my children on these walks, or I encourage them to spend time outdoors in the morning as well.

Gardening is another great way to get time outdoors, and spending time watering plants in the morning is a great way to get morning sunlight.

Whatever works for you, find a way to spend some time outdoors each day and take your family with you. Need some motivation?…