Many people spend their workdays indoors under fluorescent lights and in front of computers, then return home to bask in the glow of television screens.
But spending too much time inside isn’t good for us. And nature is beneficial — maybe essential — for human health. Psychologists and health researchers are finding more and more science-backed reasons we should spend time outside.
In her recent book, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative,” journalist Florence Williams writes that she started investigating the health benefits of nature after moving from the mountainous terrain of Boulder, Colorado, to what she describes as “the anti-Arcadia that is the nation’s capital” — Washington, DC.
“I felt disoriented, overwhelmed, depressed,” she writes. “My mind had trouble focusing. I couldn’t finish thoughts. I couldn’t make decisions and I wasn’t keen to get out of bed.”
We don’t all need to live in a place as stunning as Boulder — and most of us can’t get live anywhere too remote for smartphones or internet access.
But we do need to spend time in natural environments. That could be beautiful hiking trails or even just a nice park. Here’s why it’s so important to do so.
It could improve your short term memory.
Several studies show that nature walks have memory-promoting effects that other walks don’t.
In one study, University of Michigan students were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum, and the other took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned and did the test again, those who had walked among trees did almost 20% percent better than the first time. The ones who had taken in city sights instead did not consistently improve.
A similar study on depressed individuals found that walks in nature boosted working memory much more than walks in urban environments.
It has a de-stressing effect.
Something about being outdoors changes the physical expression of stress in the body.
One study found that students sent into the forest for two nights had lower levels of cortisol — a hormone often used as a marker for stress — than those who spent that time in the city.
In another study, researchers found a decrease in both heart rate and levels of cortisol in subjects in the forest when compared to those in the city. “Stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy,” they concluded.
Spending time outside reduces inflammation.
When inflammation goes into overdrive, it’s associated in varying degrees with a wide range of ills including autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, and cancer. Spending time in nature may be one way to help keep it in check.
In one study, students who spent time in the forest had lower levels of inflammation than those who spent time in the city. In another, elderly patients who had been sent on a weeklong trip into the forest showed reduced signs of inflammation as well as some indications that the woodsy jaunt had a positive effect on their hypertension.