The Cognitive and Health Benefits of Time Spent in Nature

The Cognitive and Health Benefits of Time Spent in Nature

Whether we think about it often or not, we are a part of nature. Most of us spend a large part of our lives in man-made environments, like shops, offices, houses and hotels. It goes without saying that these places are highly functional—but there is something in these environments which is clearly lacking.

The functionality of a man-made setting is largely due to its ability to keep nature out; nature can be a nuisance to some, bringing with it perceived problems such as pests, germs, and creepy crawlies. This feature of being able to exclude nature from human-made environments is what makes them so useful. However, over time, this has had a hidden impact on human well-being and general cognitive ease; research has uncovered strong links between design of urban environments, particularly incorporation of green space and general well-being [1].

Spending time outside of man-made environments such as cities, office buildings, and even our modern homes - and instead soaking up nature - has a very unique and powerful effect on many indicators, such as mental and bio-physical well-being. Anxiety and stress are commonplace in today’s modern world; for many, creeping up and coming from unknown origins and being difficult to resolve. Solutions that include more time in nature on a regular basis is common in many societies around the world, from the Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’ to the Scandinavian love of “friluftsliv—translated literally as “open-air living”.

Recent research shows that even minimal interactions with nature can intercept unhealthy thought patterns and give perspective, and it needn’t be a three-month hike in the wild—recent evidence suggests that as little as 20 minutes in nature can have a positive impact on stress levels, with more in-depth contact with nature such as time in green spaces proving to “reduce the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure”. Evidently, significant benefits kick in when you spend three days immersed in nature - with another keystone study showing a measurable increase in creativity after 4 days. Science is telling us what we instinctively already know: humans need time surrounded by nature and natural things to decrease stress, increase creativity, and live happier lives.

The doctors have caught on

Research on human responses to nature has been building up for some time and has now reached critical mass, leading doctors to start prescribing time with nature as a medical treatment for stress, depression, and other cognitive health issues and general well-being. It is an effective and low-cost way of dealing with emotional constraints which may, at the time, seem insurmountable. Doctors in the US and the UK are now able, and very much willing, to specify time in nature as a treatment for a range of medical conditions, wherein patients are directed toward particular outdoor locations or activities as solutions to health complaints. Of course they still provide conventional medical support in parallel, but the rise in the scientific evidence shows a significant and tangible need for humans to be in natural environments, even if it's just ten minutes walking through an urban park.

In Washington D.C., doctors have pursued this line of medical treatment by developing a dedicated phone app and website which patients are instructed to download, use to find outdoor locations, and then go and spend time in those locations. The app also has the function for patients to report that the visit has been made, which sends a notification directly to the doctor’s phone or device, and is considered by doctors to be just another treatment to go along with more conventional methods. Such prescriptions are as authoritative as any other treatment, and are solutions that doctors take as seriously as writing a prescription for anti-depressant medication or blood-thinners for heart problems.

In the UK, a scheme promoted by the Scottish National Health Service and available to all ten General Practitioner surgeries of the Shetland Islands allows doctors to issue “nature prescriptions”, wherein patients are encouraged to spend time in the islands’ unique landscapes. The scheme is in partnership with the national Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), with particular emphasis on bird-watching as well as other ideas for things to do in the outdoors.

In Japan, “forest-bathing”– the practice of simply being in the presence of trees—has been promoted since the early-1980s. This practice is a natural extension of the traditional Japanese pass-time of dining underneath cherry blossoms at lunchtime, and it became an official promotion of the national forestry ministry—perhaps to counter the country’s traditionally stressful urban environments and renowned corporate culture. The concept, referred to as Shinrin-Yoku, involves simply spending time around trees, and it doesn’t suggest or stipulate any particular activity whilst doing so.

Why are there such strong benefits?

As to why time outdoors helps cognitive health, research suggests a number of possible triggers from chemicals, such as phytoncides through to the stimulation of natural human antibodies--though the cause of antibody release is unknown. Phytoncides on the other hand are better understand. These are antimicrobial, essential oil compounds produced by trees for their own defense against germs which we breathe in when spending time in close proximity to them. Japanese researchers spent eight years between 2004 and 2012 studying the effects of these compounds [2] and found correlations between human intake and improved health metrics, such as better regulated heart rates and reduced production of cortisol stress hormones in the bloodstream—both big factors in unmanageable anxiety, stress and depression.

In the Netherlands, researchers used independent variables, such as frequency of health complaints over a two-week period and general mental health (as measured by the GHQ-12 scale), to investigate the effects of green spaces on cognitive well-being [3] and general management of daily life. The research found that people surveyed were better able to manage stressful life events if living in close proximity to a green space of at least one square mile. Interestingly, the research found no significant benefits for living within close proximity to a green space of just under half a square mile, suggesting a threshold for the minimum amount of space needed to enjoy the health benefits of larger spaces.

No explanation was provided as to the findings in the Dutch research; however, it is perhaps the sense of perspective provided through access to open, green spaces — perspective that is unavailable to people spending time solely within urban spaces and that enables better coping strategies. The calming sounds of natural spaces are also recognized as a lever for reducing some of the stress caused by noisy town and city environments.

Physical benefits

The medical conditions treated with these approaches are not limited to the treatment of mental well-being issues alone. Intuitively, access to green spaces encourages physical activity sorely lacking in the routines of many city-dwellers—and it has long been known that plenty of open space increases life expectancy in UK citizens [4]. However the use of nature for treatment of physical complaints has recently gone a step further, with doctors now issuing prescriptions for a range of physical as well as cognitive conditions such as diabetes, heart complaints, and immune-system weaknesses.

The scientifically-backed immune system-boosting properties of the previously mentioned phytoncides released by trees are the basis for referring patients with a high risk of developing type-II diabetes toward nature, as well as those with a high risk of heart disease, risk of giving birth prematurely, and those suffering from chronic insomnia. There are even schools of thought that suggest time spent in nature can help mitigate cancer and other serious diseases, though such effects are yet to be researched scientifically.

The effect on mood

One of the qualitative (non-measurable) effects of spending time in nature is the impact it has on our mood—and the knock-on effect this has on long-term well-being and health. Many of us know the interesting fun fact that it takes more energy to frown than to smile; well, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that participants shown images of nature showed much more positive behaviors and mood versus those shown pictures of man-made objects [5]. Participants shown images of nature demonstrated elevated mood, happiness, and a greater tendency toward interacting with other participants than those shown control images. So, interacting with nature not only boosts our immune system, reduces our heart rate, and makes us less anxious—it makes us more sociable, too.

What you can do

So, if you have been through some of the traditional approaches to managing stress and anxiety such as medication, talk therapy, or a gym subscription without the results needed, it may be worthwhile trying some of the nature-related solutions now prescribed by doctors.

Such pursuits need not replace conventional treatments for stress, anxiety, and other problems of mood; taking a regular walk through nature or spending a few days outside of your normal environment doesn’t necessarily mean having to stop traditional treatments. Solutions to life’s problems are often resolved with multiple approaches, and “silver bullets” are the exception rather than the rule. Give it a go and see if it works. Start small and see if you feel any effect.

Mother Nature

It’s easy to wax lyrical on nature’s capacity to act as a conduit for relaxation and peacefulness, but perhaps it is simply the fact that nature carries on regardless of the seemingly intractable challenges life puts in front of us and asks for nothing in return. Nature, as per the Latin meaning—“essential quality” or “innate disposition”—follows its own rules and pays glancing attention to the problems that come with our daily lives. It’s nice to know that whether or not we buy that new car, get into the right college, or have a house in the area we’ve always dreamed of—the trees will keep on growing. It’s good to aim for worldly things, set goals, and pursue challenges, but if it all gets too much—remember that nature will still be doing its thing, waiting for you to pay it a visit.


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Article References

1.         Guite, H.F., C. Clark, and G. Ackrill, The impact of the physical and urban environment on mental well-being. Public Health, 2006. 120(12): p. 1117-1126.

2.         Tsunetsugu, Y., B.-J. Park, and Y. Miyazaki, Trends in research related to "Shinrin-yoku" (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 2010. 15(1): p. 27-37.

3.         van den Berg, A.E., et al., Green space as a buffer between stressful life events and health. Social Science & Medicine, 2010. 70(8): p. 1203-1210.

4.         Fecht, D., et al., Associations between urban metrics and mortality rates in England. Environmental health : a global access science source, 2016. 15 Suppl 1(Suppl 1): p. 34-34.

5.         Passmore, H.-A. and M.D. Holder, Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2017. 12(6): p. 537-546.