Improving Health by Going Back to Nature
By Kelleen Lanagan
Kelleen is a 2013 Penn State graduate. She is currently finishing up her Masters of Education.
The average American child spends around seven hours a day interacting with a screen and just four to seven minutes outside exploring the possibilities of the natural world. This can lead to restlessness and even stifled creativity. Sitting in front of screens for hours a day, and having a jam-packed schedule contributes to the feeling of being overwhelmed and depressed. In recent years, the United States has seen an alarming increase in the number of youth prescriptions for ADHD medication and antidepressants. With so many diseases being the result of stress and inactivity, one way to combat many of the health problems today is simply to get up, and get outside.
Studies continue to find that being outside and in nature is linked to many mental, physical, and social heath benefits in both adults and children. Getting outside and enjoying nature is a refreshing activity that people can do to recharge. It is why some go for hikes to clear their heads, and it is why many people flock to national parks over vacations. People not only desire nature when given a choice between natural and urban landscapes, we actually need it.
What can nature do for physical health?
Being outdoors and engaging often with nature is a way to become active. Outdoor activity has many positive health effects. Exercise is an essential component in battling obesity, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing the risk of other weight-related health concerns. It can also improve physical strength by building and training muscle, and by being outside, you are absorbing the necessary sunlight to metabolize vitamin D—a vitamin that is crucial in building strong bones. Being active outside releases endorphins, a hormone in the human body that makes you feel good.
Certain chemicals released by plants as a protection against insects can boost our immune systems when we breath them. Trees and plants act as a natural air filter, removing carbon dioxide and other harmful compounds from the air. Air pollution is a particular problem in urban areas, and this pollution can cause or contribute to respiratory issues like asthma. Living closer to a forest, or being around trees more often can not only alleviate the symptoms of asthma, it can increase our quality of health in general.
Aside from trees and sunlight, there are other aspects of nature that can improve health. Gardening can boost your immune system because rich soil contains microbes—tiny microscopic organisms. Some of these microbes, like Mycobacterium vaccae, have been found to have a similar effect on the human brain as antidepressant medications. Gardening decreases the level of cortisol in your brain, which is a hormone that is involved in responding to stress. The Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture reported that adolescents engaging in a therapeutic gardening program noticed that their self-esteem grew, and they became better had handling emotional and behavioral stressors. Many of the participants expressed their desire to continue gardening after the program ended.
How can nature help our mental and social health?
Exploring nature is a great way to relieve stress. Even just going for a walk around a park can have a calming effect on the mind. Our natural curiosity as humans draws us to the outdoors, and this exploration is key to fostering a healthy imagination. Imagination can increase creativity and positive thinking, both of which are important for keeping an active and healthy mind.
There is something about the “great outdoors” that continues to inspire creativity in everyone from painters and writers, to scientists and engineers. Plants have a calming effect on our minds that can has been found to increase the speed and accuracy with which we do tasks. Having plants in the office or classroom can increase memory retention and task performance. Schools that have adopted environmental education programs have observed an increase in testing scores, while workplaces that have gardens for employees to visit during breaks see an increase in productivity.
As more people become involved with nature programs and outdoor activities, getting outside could increase the time we spend socializing with others. When many people are involved with nature, it also becomes an opportunity to enhance social connections and forge lasting friendships.
What can you do?
If you have ever felt overwhelmed by work, studies, or the bustle of a tight schedule, it may seem counterintuitive, but take a break. Go explore. Take time for yourself and remind yourself what it means to be outside connecting with nature and the people in it. One way to do this is by checking out local parks and environmental organizations for events
Events are a wonderful way to get that first foot out the door and to become part of a community of people who love being outside. The key to a happier and healthier life could in fact be your own back yard. Getting out into nature not only improves health and relationships with the community, it allows us to reconnect with a part of our very own nature.
Check out events at Clearwater Conservancy: http://www.clearwaterconservancy.org/events/
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National Wildlife Federation. There’s a reason they call it the great outdoors. http://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Be%20Out%20There/MindBodySpirit_FactSheet_May2010.ashx