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Planet earth was an unlikely beneficiary of the pandemic, as stay-at-home orders helped reduce air and noise pollution, created cleaner beaches with clearer waters and let wildlife reclaim built-up land.
It’s an enormous silver lining we must maximize — not only for the environment but also for our own health and happiness. Right now, spending time in nature is perhaps the most effective way to accomplish this goal.
Research makes this point even more meaningful. It shows that being in nature is critically important for improved well-being, both physical and mental. A benchmark 1991 study revealed that “a 40-minute walk in nature, compared with walking in an urban space or reading a magazine, led to significant improvements in mood, reduced anger and aggression, and offered better recovery from mental fatigue.”
Since then, studies have yielded results that are “beyond brilliant,” as the BBC noted when reporting the results of a 2016 study of more than 18,500 people. Participants were asked to do something “wild” every day for a month — like smelling wildflowers, planting flowers for bees, feeding birds and walking in the forest. These people not only reaped significant increases in health, happiness and connection to nature but also acquired active nature behaviors that lasted long after the challenge ended.
Spending Time in Nature Can Restore Physical and Mental Health
But nature’s ability to demonstrably heal, soothe and restore physical and mental health is one of the most intriguing areas of current research. Spending time outside in nature — or even viewing nature from a window — may be the best medicine. It can have a calming effect on our brains, help us recover from depression, increase our ability to pay attention and better cope with pain. It can significantly reduce blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and stress hormones as well.
As a wellness consultant, it’s impossible for me to not be excited about the possibilities of living a more nature-focused life. It can lead to so many positive changes in our relationships and increase productivity in just about every facet of our lives. I can’t help but point out that nature is free to all of us, which makes it the most democratic of solutions — class, race and bias-free. Yet as many before me have noted, it’s also priceless, often taken for granted and overexploited.
Some believe we could be at the beginning of a revolution on how we treat nature and are realizing its protection must be built into our policymaking. We can only hope. But for individuals, health and happiness can be vastly improved by prioritizing nature-based solutions.
As we re-engage with the world, we can reset our relationship with nature and reap the many benefits it can offer. Here are five meaningful and easy ways to bring nature into your everyday life:
1. Meditate to nature’s music.
The evidence is in; a 2017 study shows listening to chirping birds and babbling brooks can physically change your bodily systems that control rest-digest autonomic nervous systems. With the National Park Foundation’s free, downloadable, 12-minute soundtrack of 150 nature sounds found in our nation’s parks, you can immerse yourself in the wild. Take these moments to close your eyes, be still and listen, linking your breath to the rhythm of the sounds. It makes an ideal bedtime activity.
2. Take an ‘awe walk.’
Boost your healthy “prosocial” emotions such as compassion and gratitude with a 15-minute “awe walk,” a concept studied by researchers at the University of California San Francisco. Take a walk alone and focus on everything around you — the sights, smells, sounds and especially your emotions. Tap into your sense of wonder. By paying total attention to the world around you, you can increase your mental focus and emotional well-being and decrease your daily distress. Be in awe!
3. Commit a small act of nature.
Common sense says that small actions can yield big results over time, so focus on small deeds you can do outside and reap the benefits of spending time in nature. It can be as simple as picking up litter in your neighborhood or planting something in a barren spot. All these acts are also random acts of kindness — which prove to offer significant health benefits, making your small acts of nature beneficial for you and the environment.
4. Explore architecturally intriguing structures and sites.
Our surroundings — including natural and built environments — impact our mental health and well-being. Keep in mind that what you see, hear, breathe and smell can impact your mood and stress levels. So, get out and explore a built environment you find attractive in your area or someplace you’ve always wanted to go. Use your attention to notice, perceive and observe yourself and your environment.
5. Green your workout routine.
Take your exercise routine outdoors to reduce stress and enhance your mood. According to a University of Minnesota study, walking in an outdoor area with woods, mountains or lakes could lead to decreases in depression, anger and tension than if you walk indoors. Additionally, “a series of studies in Japan showed that walking in forests, as opposed to urban environments, lowered blood pressure and stress hormones well beyond the time of the walk. “
All these studies make one thing clear: It’s essential to have an intimate connection to the natural environment. Exposure to nature is not only nice to have, it’s a have-to-have for improving our physical and mental outcomes. Water, soil and air make life possible. Spending time in nature reminds us that we must nurture nature as unfailingly as it nurtures us.