Wellness

How Nature Can Help You Be Kinder, Smarter, Happier, and Healthier

July 5, 2016

In a typical day, how much of your time would you say is spent outdoors? Well, a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that American adults spend less than 5 percent of their day outside — in fact, they spend more time on average inside their cars.

Sure, getting outside can help you get in shape faster, boost your Vitamin D, and literally just give you a breath of fresh air, but it can also help you be nicer to others, make your brain work better, put a smile on your face, and strengthen your immunity. Here’s why you should — and how you can — incorporate more nature into your life.

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Sweat, But Not The Small Stuff

You should have shared your idea in the meeting, but held back for some reason; you said something hurtful to your partner and now you’re beating yourself up even though you’ve already apologized. This habit of dwelling on the past is harmful to mental health and overall well-being, and can lead to depression. Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, studies the effects of urban living, with ruminating being among one of the negative. In order to study how exposure to the outdoors affects brooding feelings and thoughts, he and his colleagues asked 38 people who live in a city to complete a questionnaire to determine their base level of negative reflection. They then split the group in two, sending one to walk through a thriving, green park, while the other group walked along a busy highway. No surprise, when the two groups took the questionnaire again, those that walked through the park showed improvements in their mental health.

So the next time you find yourself tied up in negative thoughts, remember the old adage: Just take a walk.

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Do Unto Others

Take a long look at the gorgeous nature scene above if you want to help yourself be more generous, trusting, and helpful to others. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, asked one group of participants to look at photos of beautiful nature scenes, and had another group look at nature scenes that were less appealing. Then the participants all played two games designed to measure generosity and trust. Those that looked at the more pleasing photos scored higher.

And in a related study, Paul Piff, an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine had one group of participants admire a grove of eucalyptus trees for a minute, and another group stare up at the side of a building. When a researcher “accidentally” dropped a container of pens, the people who’d been looking at the trees helped pick up more pens.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to drive to a National Park to get your fix. This article explains that simply looking at a computerized image of a rooftop garden is enough to boost feelings of goodwill. But there’s other ways to bring nature to your home and office that will give your eyes a break from the screen, too. Add easy-to-care-for plants to your bedside table and desk, frame photos of your last outdoor adventure and place them where you’ll come across them throughout your day, and try to place your work station near a window.

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Seek Natural Medicine

Could a walk in the park actually be a cure for ailments many doctors are prescribing medicine for? Nooshin Razani at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California thinks so. She’s working with pediatricians to write prescriptions for patients and their families to visit nearby parks before turning to other, more clinical treatments.

South Koreans seek similar solutions in Healing Forests. In these established parks, “health rangers” offer visitors teas and guide them to areas that will be most beneficial to their ailments. South Korea currently boasts three such Healing Forests, but 34 more are planned by 2017.

You don’t have to live in South Korea to find your own healing forest. Articles like this show you how to find local spots where you can recuperate.

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Turn Off The Tech

E-mails, Slack chats, push notifications, text messages, likes, and retweets can be overwhelming to say the least. Throw all of that into the middle of a packed schedule, and it’s no wonder the prefrontal cortex of your brain (where multitasking and critical thinking happen) is overloaded. Two psychologists took a group of people backpacking for four days, where any and all forms of technology were banned. The participants performed creative thinking and problem solving tasks, and performed 50% better than they had before the tech-free trip. Other studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex is quiet and calm when people are out in nature, because there are far fewer distractions to combat. That open space gives the mind room and energy to wander, which results in sharper thinking, and increased creativity.

The good news is that it doesn’t take four days in the backcountry to accomplish this. The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a study showing that just 25 minutes in a park is enough to let your brain rest and make way for better thinking.

So remember: to live your kindest, smartest, happiest, healthiest life, just let nature take its course.

Thanks to Taylor Roades for the inspirational, nature-filled shots. See more of the Vancouver-based photographer’s work on her website and follow her on Instagram @taylorroades.

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11 Comments

  • Reply Cassie July 6, 2016 at 8:34 am

    I absolutely love this article! It’s so informative on how we need to connect with out environment in order to really become in tune with ourselves. I agree that exercising outdoors or simply just taking a walk can do so much!

    • mm
      Reply Team Athleta July 6, 2016 at 10:18 am

      Thank you Cassie! We’re lucky enough to have a beautiful wetland park right beside our office here in Northern California. We often walk around the park during the day. It’s amazing what a difference just a few minutes of fresh air makes!

  • Reply Malina July 6, 2016 at 8:44 am

    I enjoyed this article! Taking a walk can do wonders for your body and mind. It is just so relaxing and peaceful. In the woods or anyway you may go.

    • mm
      Reply Team Athleta July 6, 2016 at 10:14 am

      Thanks Malina! It’s so true – even just 10 minutes outside makes a difference! Really glad you enjoyed the article. -Violetta

  • Reply Gee July 6, 2016 at 8:59 am

    This was a wonderful article-please keep posting information and resources like this!

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  • Reply Andy July 24, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    Thank you for this article. I used to lament not being able to go out to an urban forest and just enjoy the calmness and beauty of nature. There’s not a lot of places like that where I can go to where I live. I honestly didn’t know you can get a similar (but maybe less effective) result just by looking at pictures of nature and perhaps having a plant or two (or many!) indoors. I guess for now I’m going to have to hoard me some nice succulents for my office space, so I can at least have nature come to me instead of the other way around, at least for now.

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