Nature Therapy: How Being In Nature Can Improve Wellbeing
There’s nothing quite like taking a walk outside, enjoying fresh air, blue skies and the sounds of birds singing in the trees. But have you ever wondered why it just feels so good? Whether you’re strolling the pathways of your local city park, scaling the peak of a hiking challenge, or exploring waterways or forests, being close to nature has a number of proven benefits for your wellbeing. Let’s take a look at the connection between not just nature and mental health, but also physical health too.
What is nature therapy?
Also known as ‘ecotherapy’, nature therapy is the practice of spending time in nature to improve wellbeing, particularly emotional health. It can encompass something as simple as taking a walk in a park, or involve more specific techniques such as shinrin-yoku (the Japanese practice of immersing yourself in a forest, also known as ‘forest bathing’) or grounding, which is designed to reconnect you with the earth through barefoot contact.
How does being in nature help support physical health?
Aside from the standard health benefits of taking a walk or a bike ride, you can also experience some additional, and perhaps unexpected, benefits from getting out into the green stuff. Time in nature has been shown to improve physical health in a whole host of areas, such as blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and sleep. In fact, one study showed that spending just 30 minutes outdoors can lower blood pressure by almost 10%.
How does nature affect our mental health?
Maybe it’s the beautiful sights, delightful smells, or sounds of birds and rustling leaves, but it’s no surprise that exposure to nature is linked to a number of emotional health benefits. Improved attention, reduced stress levels, better mood, and even increased empathy and cooperation are just a few of the proven results. Consider making your next work meeting outside if you have a few tricky items on the agenda.
Why is nature important for our mental health?
It’s easy to understand our attraction to nature when the health benefits are made clear, but why are we so instinctively drawn to it? Well, there’s a theory called the ‘biophilia hypothesis’, which states that our innate drive to seek a connection to nature is a hangover from the times of our primal ancestors, who lived in wild settings and relied on the environment for survival. We’ve spent so long as a species living outside amongst flora and fauna (and only a very short amount of time living ‘indoors’ by comparison), that we’re still highly attuned to nature with an inherent attachment to it.
Why is the natural environment so good for us?
The benefits of nature are pretty incredible, but how do they work? How does spending time amongst trees and flowers create such a multitude of positive effects? One school of thought is ‘attention restoration theory’, which is based on the concept that paying attention in stressful environments - like busy cities or at work - requires a lot of effort. In contrast, paying attention in a natural environment requires less focus and effort, which leads to a far more relaxed body and mind.
‘Stress reduction hypothesis’ is another theory, which believes that looking at scenery containing nature has a restorative effect, and can ease our state of alert following a stressful situation. The sight of nature can help calm our senses and enable us to recover after a stressful experience.
Spending time specifically amongst forests and trees means that humans inhale aerosols, which are tiny particles that include dust, ash and pollen. An article published at the Yale School of the Environment suggests that these aerosols are thought to cause elevated levels of Natural Killer cells in the immune system, which help fight tumors and infections.
How to add more nature to your life
You don’t need to dust off your hiking boots and start practicing for a three-day challenge to start connecting with nature. If you want to incorporate more of the ‘outdoors’ into your life, try one of our bite-sized suggestions:
- Explore hobbies that get you outdoors, such as gardening or jogging.
- Swap cafes and restaurants for picnics in the park when catching up with friends.
- Fill your house with indoor plants, which have been shown to have similar effects to being outdoors, such as reduced stress levels, improved concentration, and higher productivity.
- Commit to eating your lunch in a nearby park at least twice a week.
- Park your car earlier or get off at a different stop on your way to and from work, if there’s an opportunity to walk through a park as part of your route.
The healing power of nature has been known as long ago as ancient Roman times, where contact with nature was considered a remedy for dealing with noise and urban congestion. Now, with two-thirds of humanity projected to be living in cities by 2050, there’s never been a better time to consider how you can get some more greenery into your life.
- University of Minnesota, How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing? https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing Sourced 4 April 2023
- Jimenez MP, DeVille NV, Elliott EG, et al. Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(9):4790. Published 2021 Apr 30. doi:10.3390/ijerph18094790
- American Psychological Association. (2020, April 1). Nurtured by nature. Monitor on Psychology, 51(3). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature
- Yale School of Environment, Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health. https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health Published 9 January 2020
- Ulrich, Roger. (1983). Aesthetic and Affective Response to Natural Environment. Human Behavior & Environment: Advances in Theory & Research. 6. 85-125. 10.1007/978-1-4613-3539-9_4.
- Lee MS, Lee J, Park BJ, Miyazaki Y. Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. J Physiol Anthropol. 2015;34(1):21. Published 2015 Apr 28. doi:10.1186/s40101-015-0060-8
- Oh Y-A, Kim S-O, Park S-A. Real Foliage Plants as Visual Stimuli to Improve Concentration and Attention in Elementary Students. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2019; 16(5):796. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16050796
- Bringslimark, T., Hartig, T., and Patil, G. G. (2007). Psychological Benefits of Indoor Plants in Workplaces: Putting Experimental Results into Context. HortScience horts 42, 3, 581-587, available from: < https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI.42.3.581>
- Wolf, K.L., S. Krueger, and M.A. Rozance. 2014 Stress, Wellness & Physiology - A Literature Review. In: Green Cities: Good Health (www.greenhealth.washington.edu). College of the Environment, University of Washington.