‘Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better’ Albert Einstein
We understand intuitively that nature is good for us but how does that work and how can we get more nature into our lives without it feeling like a chore?
When we feel stressed, we might go for a walk or maybe run in a local park, meadow, woodland or perhaps alongside a river or canal. The idea that contact with nature can be good for our health has a long history but there has been a lot of research recently into the restorative effects of nature in relation to both physical and psychological wellbeing. There is an increasing interest in these benefits from mainstream media, including magazines like Country Living and Psychologies as well as newspapers such as the Guardian and Independent. Relatively new fields of ecopsychology (the study of the connection between human beings and the natural world) and ecotherapy (nature-based health programs) are growing rapidly. During ecotherapy sessions, the natural world inspires reflection and contemplation about any issues that participants are experiencing. Often, sessions incorporate tuning in to the senses, being aware of what is happening in nature at that moment.
A number of universities across the UK and further afield are carrying out research into how and why nature benefits health and wellbeing. A review of this research, carried out in 2014, identified four possible connections between nature and human health. The first two focus more on physical health and relate to better air quality and benefits of being physically active, for instance running or walking in natural environments. We understand that physical exercise is good for us and it is possible that taking exercise in nature is more beneficial for our mental health as well.
A third possible connection relates to social contact – who we are with when we spend time in nature. This is a complex topic and it is difficult to separate the benefits of spending time with other people from spending time in nature. Research suggests that we benefit more from being in a natural environment if we are alone and able to appreciate nature. If we’re out in nature with someone we like and get on well with, we benefit from that too.
The fourth focus of research relates to the potential for nature to reduce stress. With our increasingly urban, indoor and busy lifestyles, it is easy for stress to build up on a daily basis. It is thought that paying attention to nature, particularly through our senses, helps to restore and heal our minds.
So how much nature should we aim to include in our lives to experience these benefits? Research by the University of Exeter suggests that a two hour ‘dose’ per week is enough to improve health and wellbeing. This doesn’t have to be taken all in one go and doesn’t have to involve strenuous exercise – sitting on a bench in a quiet spot listening to the sounds of nature is enough to contribute to better health and wellbeing. If you can’t get outside, take time to look out of a window at the sky or tend to any plants or flowers in the room.
References: Country Living article accessed online on 29/07/2019: https://www.countryliving.com/uk/wildlife/countryside/a22087167/nature-great-health-benefits-new-study/ Psychologies article: https://www.psychologies.co.uk/ecotherapy The Guardian article accessed online on 29/07/2019: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/13/two-hour-dose-nature-weekly-boosts-health-study-finds The Independent article accessed online on 29/07/2019: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/exercise-nature-outdoors-parks-activity-health-england-well-being-a8958871.html