Summer is the perfect time to turn off the television and reconnect with nature – and the latest science shows you needn’t be outdoors to do it!
We’ve all had moments during which we’ve stepped outside and felt instantly happier, healthier and refreshed – stress dissipates, creativity flows, confidence bolsters, energy rises and worries ease. It’s not all in our minds, either – the benefits of spending time outside are widely reported. A recent study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology shows that just five minutes of green exercise is all that’s needed to benefit mental health. “There are proven benefits for heart rate, blood pressure, stress levels, anxiety, depression and recovery from illness,” adds Sarah Spencer, author of Think Like a Tree: The natural principles guide to life (£9.99, Amazon) “but the real paybacks come when we take time to engage with what’s around us and actively observe our surroundings.”
As to why this happens, studies have shown that we may be born with a love of nature – something known as the biophilia hypothesis. During one such study from the University of Derby and The Wildlife Trust, the number of people describing their health as ‘excellent’ increased by 30 percent after doing something ‘wild’ every day for 30 days. “Exposure to nature is widely accepted as beneficial, however, research shows that developing a deeper connection with nature is important for mental wellbeing,” explains Miles Richardson, professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby. “The crises of climate change and biodiversity loss show that our traditional relationship with nature has failed and there is a need for a new relationship with the natural world.”
Indeed, data reveals that access to green space has reduced significantly – in 1991, reports show a 90 percent decrease in natural areas around urban homes. This makes it quite difficult for us humans to reconnect with the natural world, but fortunately you might not need to be among nature to benefit from it. To put that in perspective, one study by the University of Essex found that simply looking at slides of the outdoors was enough to positively alter peoples’ autonomic nervous system (the division of the nervous system linked to relaxed or stressed states), leaving them feeling instantly calmer. Whether you draw it, collect it or walk among it, follow this simple plan to get a nature fix.
Popular in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, friluftsliv is the simple process of spending time outdoors and enjoying nature. In Scandinavia, people typically live close to forests, mountains and lakes, which makes this lifestyle easy. Here in the UK, we may not be as lucky, but it is possible for anyone to pack a picnic and head out into the countryside. “Try something organised like hiking in the mountains,” adds Lena Köpcke, chief of people and culture at angling app Fishbrain (fishbrain.com). “Outdoor activities, such as sailing, cycling, hiking and fishing, are so popular among the Scandis.”
Is your home making you happy? If not, perhaps you need to revamp the décor. Choosing to decorate your house in organic materials that resonate with nature – such as wood, cotton, leather, seagrass – can bring about feelings of calm, peace and happiness. “Manmade objects only make us feel more anxious,” explains Sarah, “but studies show that simply touching a piece of wood has been proven to lower feelings of stress.”
Forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) is a traditional Japanese healing practice which involves immersing yourself in nature while paying attention to the five senses. “Literature reports diverse health benefits of shinrinyoku – the immune system function improves by increasing the action of natural killer cells, the cardiovascular system and the respiratory system,” explains Yasuhiro Kotera, academic lead in psychotherapy at the University of Derby. However, you don’t need to live in the woods to reap the rewards. Research shows that simply caring for a plant and having it in view can positively affect mood, decreasing feelings of anger.
Good news – you don’t need to be among nature to benefit from it. A lab-based study from Texas A&M University in the US shows those who were exposed to natural scenes recovered far more speedily from stress than those who’d been exposed to urban settings. “Actively observe the details of nature wherever you are – you don’t need to be out in the countryside,” adds Sarah. “Get creative – draw natural scenes, take photographs or grow herbs on your windowsill.”
“Simply thinking of nature can make you happier,” says Sarah, who explains how natural patterns such as the branches in trees, can remind us of other aspects of life, such as the branching patterns of a strong support network. The author continues that, by making these links with nature, you can help heal yourself: “Think about the meaning in natural systems – for example, be inspired to actively care for yourself by the way a tree actively heals a fallen branch.”
The 100% in-nature challenge
Want less stress and more happiness? Of course you do! Learning how to engage with your natural surroundings all of the time could really be a boon to your body. Challenge yourself to always connect with the great outdoors by following these tips from author Sarah Spencer.
• Walk in a park or woodland.
• Plant a pot or a window box with flowers.
• Ask your boss to turn a disused space into a garden.
• Share an allotment or join a community garden.
• Cover your walls with paintings and photos of nature.
• Wear flowery shirts and clothing (go on, you know you want to!).
• Have a pot plant in your office or bedroom (that covers the question of what to do when you are asleep).
• Take a scenic walk to work or to the shops.
• Plant a small woodland garden in your back garden or in your local community.
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