As the article says, “We spend far less time in nature than we did even 25 or 50 years ago,” so it’s definitely worth the investment in time and effort for some to get outside. For me, just having a garden this year after not doing one for the last few has helped tremendously.
More jobs are indoors, and kids are less likely to play outside. Some of us rarely go into nature at all. But nature can be powerful medicine – helping us to heal from illness, improve our immunity and boost our mental well-being. So how exactly do we make use of nature to improve our health? The science points to many different strategies, and we don’t need to live near a forest to do most of them. With a little effort, we can integrate nature into our lives in ways that have positive impacts on our health for years to come.
- Enjoy plants – Why do we prefer to look at a flowerbed more than looking at a sidewalk? Or, why do we enjoy looking up at a giant redwood tree more than a giant building? Well, research suggests that viewing vegetation makes us feel good, so we enjoy it more. Just about any vegetation will do.
Looking at flowers in a park (or even indoors) or viewing plants through a window may have stress-reducing or other well-being benefits. In particular, large vegetation such as trees or forests seems to be the most beneficial . For example, research showed that patients with a window view of trees recovered faster from gallbladder surgery than those with a window view of a brick wall . So anytime you get the chance to enjoy vegetation, take it. While it’s always nice to get flowers from someone else, you can also buy flowers for yourself to enjoy and reap the same benefits. The goal is be with nature—or at least view it—to get the benefits.
- Garden – In the modern world, gardening is one of the most common ways people interact with nature. That’s a good thing because gardening has been shown to increase people’s life satisfaction, physical health and even cognitive function. Studies further show that even a few hours of gardening can result in instantaneous reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms .
It’s unclear whether the benefits of gardening are from being outdoors, getting more sun or being on the ground; all we know is that is works. Given this evidence, gardening is now being used as a cost-effective mental health intervention and has even taken on the title, ‘horticulture therapy.’ So try to find a way to do a little gardening. You can make a windowsill garden, join a community garden or start a plot in the back yard of your or your family’s home to start reaping the benefits.
- Touch soil – Researchers have found that a type of bacteria in soil called Mycobacterium vaccae can affect the brain in a similar way as antidepressants. Specifically, the bacteria can activate brain cells that produce serotonin, a feel-good neurochemical. The authors speculate that spending more time in the dirt can expose us to these good bacteria and potentially help improve our mental health . Of course, gardening is one good way to get your hands in the dirt, but it is not the only way. You could play in the dirt with your kids, sit on the grass in a park or do other outdoor projects that require moving or interacting with dirt.
- Take wilderness trips – A rather large amount of research has explored the health and well-being benefits of wilderness trips. In one study that asked participants to write about their experiences, it was shown that wilderness trips can help people develop ‘no time consciousness.’ After undergoing the trip, participants also reported wanting to slow down, consume less and simplify. They said they now had a better sense of what really matters and felt more in tune with nature . For many of us, these are experiences we strive for.
And this research suggests that we may be able to achieve these valuable experiences and perspectives as a result of doing wilderness trips. So try to come up with fun wilderness adventures to try. You could go white-water rafting, camping, mountain biking or do other guided or non-guided adventures.
- Do a walking meditation – Meditation is about learning how to stop—stop our worried thoughts, distressing emotions or unhealthy actions. An outdoor meditation can be a stopping point where instead of doing whatever we’re doing, we opt instead to be fully present, notice our breathing and pay attention to everything else that surrounds us . By doing so, we help clear the mind of clutter and become more mindful, which is good for our health and well-being.
To do a walking meditation, focus on the tiny details of what exists in front of you. Take note of your steps—left, right then left again . Try to notice the feeling of the air on your face or the sun on your skin. Some parks and open spaces even have labyrinths available for their communities to enjoy. These mindful practices can help calm the body and improve overall wellness.
- Get some sun – We know that getting too much sun has risks, namely skin cancer. But recent research has been highlighting the benefits of sun exposure, which include a lower risk of colorectal cancer, breast cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Sun exposure also increases serotonin and endorphins, two feelgood hormones. This has led experts to recommend that we get a moderate amount of sun (but avoid sunburn) . To avoid sunburn, be sure to use a non-toxic sunscreen. EWG’s Healthy Living app can help you find one.
The number one reason why we need sun appears to be because we need more vitamin D, and your body makes vitamin D when it is exposed to sun. Although scientific experts can’t seem to agree on how much vitamin D we need, the evidence shows that more and more of us are vitamin D deficient . Given vitamin D plays an important role in our health , it is absolutely essential to get enough. Unfortunately, vitamin D supplementation may not be entirely adequate. That’s why it’s a good idea to get at least some sun each day.
- Relax your body – Environments with lots of noise, intensity and movement can activate stress systems and overwhelm the body. City life, with its roaring ambulances and bustling crowds can lead to a light, but chronic, level of stress. Submerging the body in a more mellow, quiet and low-intensity environment is thought to counteract these stress systems and reduce this activation. Some speculate that nature is the perfect environment to provoke this relaxation. With its low complexity and low activity, it may help the body to calm itself . You can also use apps like Calm that feature nature sounds to relax and fall asleep.
- Give forest bathing a try – Forest bathing involves visiting a forest for relaxation and recreation while breathing in the scent from the wood of the trees . Forest bathing has been shown to increase vigor and reduce anxiety and depression. Specifically in one study, forest bathing resulted in lower levels of two stress hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Furthermore, forest bathing appeared to have positive effects on the immune system by increasing natural killer cell activity. These natural killer cells are thought to help the body kill cancer cells . Together, this evidence suggests that forest bathing is a useful tool for improving both health and well-being.
- Pursue nature that holds your attention – Some theorists suggest that nature’s restorative effects are a result of its ability to hold our attention. If we’ve ever looked up at a massive waterfall, down on a valley from the top of a mountain or deep into an aquarium of colorful fish, we’ve experienced the pull that nature has on our attention. Its vastness and ability to provoke awe can help us disconnect from troublesome thoughts, set aside our worries and be more fully present in the moment . This mental shift may explain why being in nature—particularly in places that generate a sense of awe—is so good for our health and well-being.
- Try urban foraging – Those of us who live in urban areas with little green-space may not have easy access to forests or other nature-dense areas. But that’s okay. A little bit of creativity can take you far. For example, urban foraging is quickly becoming an interest to city-dwellers who want to get back in touch with nature. Foraging involves seeking out and consuming edible plants found around your town or city. For example, did you know you can eat common weeds like dandelion, purslane and sourgrass?
Foraging can help you both get outdoors and consume some of the most nutrient dense foods available. Just be sure you know exactly what the plants are, that they haven’t been sprayed with toxic weed killer and make sure that they grew far away from busy, highly polluted roads. A great way to do this is to find someone who can guide you to the spots in your city that grow edible weeds and fruits.
- Boost your immune system – Mushrooms are often used as medicine for their potent antioxidant, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory effects. Mushrooms, especially shiitake and chaga, have even been shown to have positive effects on the immune system . A couple ways mushrooms boost the immune system and help fight inflammation is because they contain beta glucans and vitamin D. If you’re looking for a way other than eating mushrooms to get your dose in, try Four Sigmatic, which has a variety of mushroom-blend coffee substitutes.
- Get some fresh air – We sometimes take fresh air for granted. In several major cities and in regions with regular fires, the air is brown and unclean. In the rest of the world, the air is cleaner (although this is changing.) Therefore, in most locations, it is helpful to get outdoors and breathe in this clean air. So take some time outside, whether it be by taking a work break or walking from the office to the car, and try to get a bit more fresh air. To minimize breathing in toxic car exhaust fumes, choose low-traffic walking routes and avoid walking near busy roadways during high traffic times.
- Improve the quality of indoor air – Build upon the benefits of outdoor fresh air by cleaning up the air inside. Inside our homes, there are tons of chemicals we may not be aware of. Most notably, air fresheners, deodorizers and moth repellents often include p-dichlorobenzene (p-DCB), which is known to increase cancer risk . Other chemicals can come from paint on the walls, coating on the inside of the oven or various types of flooring. So open your windows as often as possible to benefit from the clean, outdoor air. You could also consider getting a high quality air filter like IQ Air or Air Doctor. HEPA air filters are a good choice because they force air through a fine mesh that traps small particles such as pollen, dander, dust and tobacco smoke.
- Bring plants indoors – Plants, themselves, have the power to help clean air. Plus, research has shown that having plants in an office space may reduce sick leave and increase productivity . This suggests that nature, even when brought indoors, can be beneficial. So grab a couple of houseplants to place around your home or workplace.
- Put your hands in water – Grounding, as it’s known in the field of psychology, is a process that can help you pull yourself away from anxiety and focus on the present moment. Many grounding techniques involve natural elements. For example, one way to ground yourself is to put your hands in water. Try to focus on how the water feels on your hands. Switch your hands from warm water to cold water and then back again, trying to notice the sensations you feel. Using techniques like this that focus you on the present moment can be great to quickly reduce feelings of anxiety or panic.
- Walk barefoot – Another more literal grounding technique is to physically walk on the ground barefoot. Recent research is revealing that physical contact of the human body with the earth has numerous health benefits. For example, one study showed that grounding people with a conductive patch on their feet resulted in improvements in cardiovascular health . So whenever you get a chance, walk barefoot on the dirt or grass as one way to ground yourself.
- Lay on the ground – One more grounding technique involves laying on the ground. To do it, just lie down in a flat but comfortable place, breathe naturally and try to focus on eliminating tension from the body. Try to stay in this pose for 10 minutes. While this can be done indoors, take it outside in a park, in the yard or in another green space to boost the health benefits even more.
- Hug a tree – yes become a tree hugger – Breathing in nature can also be beneficial to our well-being. Scientists have suggested that breathing phytoncides, which are chemicals produced by plants, can increase our white blood cell count, and even help boost our immune system . One way to do this is by hugging a tree. So wrap your arms around a large tree. Feel its bark, breathe in its scent and listen to the sounds of its leaves blowing or just resting. Activities like these can help you be more present in nature and likely get greater benefit.
- Spend the day by the water – Many of us have heard of green space, but what about blue space—landscapes that contain water? Blue space has been linked to well-being in a few ways. Scientists suggest that people use blue space for both recreation and restoration. Indeed, people find the calm sounds of water to be restorative. Blue spaces also expand attention and reduce stress . To gain the benefits of blue space, you could spend the day by a body of water—a lake, ocean, river, pond or stream.
- Drink water – We’re told again and again how important it is to drink water. That’s because water is essential for so many bodily functions. But tap water can contain many problematic chemicals. So get a good water filter—like Berkey or AquaTru and aim to drink half of your body weight in ounces. For example, a person weighing 150 lbs. would drink 75 ounces (150/2 = 75). That way you’ll be sure you’re drinking quality water in amounts that promote good health. If you have a hard time with plain water, you could make tea, which is just water with infused herbs. Or you could add a slice of lemon or drink water infused with other foods like strawberries, oranges or cucumbers. By making water enjoyable, it may be easier to consume adequate amounts.
- Use plants medicinally – A variety of plants can be used to help us heal from illness and strengthen our health overall. Ginkgo, rosemary and sage are a few medicinal herbs that can be beneficial. Another medicinal plant receiving a lot of attention recently is cannabidiol (CBD). Although the research is not yet clear on all the benefits of CBD, it suggests that it can benefit people with social anxiety disorder and ADHD. It may also help those with PTSD, insomnia and bipolar disorder . So when thinking about how to make use of nature, be sure to keep in mind that consuming medicinal plants can benefit you too.
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