By Molly Rose Teuke
“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.” — Leo Tolstoy, Russian writer
Deadlines, productivity demands, information overload, COVID-19 — the world can feel overwhelming. Yet there’s a simple thing you can do to help you relax, give your brain a rest and reknit the frayed edges of your psyche: Get outside. Find a forest and take a walk, or even set your weary self on a park bench for a little while. The role of nature in your personal well-being has long been acknowledged if not well-understood.
Research in recent decades has increased our awareness of the myriad benefits of getting out into nature. The list of physical outcomes is impressive: lower blood pressure, improved immune response, increased energy and longer life, among others.
In 1984, a seminal study published by environmental researcher Roger Ulrich revealed that surgical patients healed more quickly and spent fewer days in the hospital if they got outside virtually — meaning if, outside their window, they had a view of nature vs. a brick wall.
Ulrich’s continued research showed, in 1993, that just a picture of nature could reduce anxiety and lessen the need for pain medication in heart surgery patients in an intensive care unit. According to the National Institutes of Health National Library of Medicine, patients with plants in their room show lower pain intensity and pain distress, less anxiety and lower levels of fatigue.
The benefits of nature to your cognitive function are becoming as widely supported by research as the physical benefits. In 2012, researchers at the University of Kansas concluded that spending more time outdoors (without electronic devices) improved problem-solving and creativity. Others found that immersion in nature results in generally improved performance, stronger vitality, better coping skills, and greater emotional balance and resilience.
Nature boosts your ability to focus, too. In a 2008 study of the benefits of walking, subjects who walked in nature did better on a memory test than those who walked in an urban setting. A 2009 study of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also showed strengthened concentration after a walk in a park compared with a walk on a downtown or neighborhood street.
According to the authors of the study, “Twenty minutes in a park setting was sufficient to elevate attention performance relative to the same amount of time in other settings.” These findings, they believe, apply to the general population as well as to children. Their conclusion: “‘Doses of nature’ might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new tool in the toolkit for managing ADHD symptoms.”
Step outside. As long as you feel safe, simply being outdoors provides many benefits. Just the fresh air and movement are likely to make you feel better. Some 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, offered this prescription for wellness: “If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.” Face it, everything seems easier when you’re in a good mood. Besides, Hippocrates lived to be close to 100, depending on the source.
Immerse yourself. Listen to birdsong, notice how the sun plays with shadow, luxuriate in the fragrance of a carpet of pine needles. In other words, practice “forest bathing,” a rough translation of the Japanese practice of “shinrin-yoku.” The Forestry Department of Japan coined the term in 1982 to describe the contribution of nature therapy to a healthful lifestyle. “There is something about the environment that helps our nervous systems unwind,” says Katie Asmus, a licensed psychotherapist and wilderness guide in Boulder, Colo.
Forest bathing does have a few rules:
- Keep it aimless; have no agenda other than immersion.
- Leave your electronic devices behind.
- Pause to notice the sights and smells.
- Experience the physical sensations of being in nature — the breeze on your skin, the cushion of a forest path beneath your feet.
- It’s not about hiking; the distance covered in a half-hour of forest bathing might be little more than a few yards.
- Don’t skimp.
Research published in 2019 suggests that the robust benefits of nature accrue only after at least 120 minutes of exposure weekly. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be all at once. Multiple short forays into nature afford as much benefit as a single two-hour experience, so long as they add up to at least two hours. The old adage about “too much of a good thing” doesn’t seem to apply here.
The point is to get outside. Reap the benefits. Live the good life in the great outdoors. And if you can’t get outside, look out a window or surround yourself with plants. As architect Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”
Molly Rose Teuke has an enduring curiosity about what makes our brains tick. She offers a program through Nicolet College called Getting Your Brain on Your Side and is a certified brain-based coach in private practice. She also hosts a weekly classical music program on WXPR-FM — proof of the power of neuroplasticity. You can reach her at [email protected]