One of the simplest and most effective things you can do to boost your health? Get outside. From reduced blood pressure to that burst of motivation you need to exercise harder, here are six ways nature renews your physical and mental health.
Nature boosts your immune system
Dr. Qing Li, a professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, believes humans benefit from the anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties of “phytoncides” which are oils that trees secrete to protect them from rotting and predators. In his 2010 study of 12 Tokyo-dwelling men, 11 of them had an increased amount of “natural killer” cells in blood tests after a three-day trip to the forest. Natural killer cells are a type of white blood cell that act early to wipe out dangerous bacteria and viruses. In another study from Japan, women who spent a few hours in the forest on two consecutive days experienced a boost in white blood cell activity by 50 percent. Feel a cold coming on? Get outside.
Nature exposure reduces depression symptoms
When we’re out in nature, we don’t have to respond to any stress stimuli – like work meetings or honking – and we’re often physically active and distracted from anxious thoughts by leaves fluttering and birds tweeting. So it’s no wonder nature is a huge mood boost, and it’s backed by research. In one study, 46 Norweigan adults with moderate-to-severe depression spent at least six hours a week as part of an urban gardening group and reported a significant change in symptoms. Interestingly, the positive effects lasted three months after the garden therapy for many individuals.
Another study found that self-esteem and mood improved after exercising in an outdoor setting. The best part? The feel-good benefit occurs after just five minutes of outdoor activity. So a 10-minute jog in the park is all it takes.
Trees help you heal faster
Hospital managers have long known about the healing power of nature scenes. After all, a study published in the 80s first showed that all else being equal, patients whose rooms looked out to trees healed faster than those who saw a brick wall. Interestingly, patients don’t have to be in a garden to get Mother Nature’s healing effects. Several studies have shown nature murals, videos and even the presence of an aquarium have been linked to lowered anxiety, blood pressure and higher pain tolerance in patients. Hospitals are taking note. This summer, Victoria Hospital in Winnipeg unveiled a $1.8-million healing garden.
You’re more motivated to exercise for longer
What’s the secret of our toned friends who never seem to fall off the exercise wagon? According to a study published this year in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health, it’s the great outdoors. By asking about the exercise habits of more than 11,600 people, the study showed those who incorporated outdoor workouts into their routine worked out twice as much, on average, as those who chose to get their sweat on inside.
Flora and fauna can wipe away stress
Notice that stress melts away as soon as you get to a cottage? That’s not just because there may be a certain beverage by your side and you’ve left city traffic behind. A huge amount of research has associated lowered stress levels with time spent in nature. For example, for a study published in 2013, adults were hooked up to portable EEGs – which measure brain waves – before walking through Edinburgh on a set route. When they got to the half-mile-in-the-park portion, their brain patterns showed lower frustration and higher meditative thinking.
Greenery lowers blood pressure
Good news for those at risk of heart disease: you can skip out to the countryside for medical reasons. In one trial, 12 elderly people with hypertension were randomized to either a city environment – Hangzhou, China – or a forest environment. All participants ate the same diet, which was free of alcohol and caffeine, and they all walked for just over an hour in the morning and again later in the afternoon. While the blood pressure remained the same for the urban group, those who spent their time in the forest saw a significant drop in blood pressure.
Can’t escape the urban jungle in the workday? Bring more plants into your office. Previous research suggests indoor plants lower systolic blood pressure.