Ever since Dr Roger S. Ulrich published findings on the healing effects of a natural setting on hospital patients, researchers have been investigating the link between nature contact and human wellbeing.
By now, we understand that spending time in the natural world is good for our health (especially our mental health), but why? More importantly, how can people take advantage of this information?
If your knowledge on the topic is fairly – ahem – green, we’ve put together an overview of the relationship between nature and mental health.
What does nature do to our overall health?
In terms of mental health, a study by researchers in the USA found that contact with nature was associated with the following:
- Increased happiness
- Decreased mental distress
- Better self-reported wellbeing
- A sense of meaning and purpose
- Positive affect
- More satisfying social interactions
But what about cognitive performance? Well, a 2019 study found that nature contact also has many benefits for brain function, such as improving attention, memory, and adaptability.
There are also possible physical benefits: one study found that microbes in the environment may strengthen the microbes in our body, boosting immunity!
While these are all great signs, it’s important to remember that other lifestyle factors (such as diet, physical activity, substance use, and social support) all play a role in overall health and wellbeing.
Why is spending time in nature so good for us?
According to a 2015 review, there are three major theories as to why nature improves mental health:
- Humans are inclined to connect with nature because it was key to our survival throughout human history.
- Spending time in nature removes unnatural stimuli, restoring our attention and helping us to focus better.
- Nature contact creates a chemical reaction in our bodies that reduces stress.
Unfortunately, with our busy modern lifestyles and growing population, we are moving further and further away from the natural world by living and spending our time in highly developed areas. When you think about it through the lens of why nature is so good for us, it’s easy to see why the Australian population is experiencing a spike in mental ill health.
Moving beyond the theoretical, nature’s goodness has been recognised in the realm of modern medicine. In fact, doctors in many countries are prescribing green prescriptions to alleviate patients’ concerns.
What are green prescriptions?
If you visit your GP and mention certain problems, such as feeling down or having trouble sleeping, you might walk away with a ‘green prescription’ (also known as a ‘nature prescription’). This means your doctor wants you to involve ‘nature-based activities’ in your routine to improve your health.
How to harness the benefits of nature
A ‘nature-based activity’ doesn’t have to be rigorous physical activity – research shows that mere exposure to green and blue spaces (which literally just means places with vegetation and water) can have marked impacts on mental health and happiness.
If you’re wondering how much time in nature is enough to improve wellbeing, here’s some good news: researchers have unearthed an ideal ‘dose’. A 2019 study in the UK found that 120 minutes of outdoor time each week was associated with good health and wellbeing; additionally, those who reported spending between 200-300 minutes (3.5-5 hours) amongst nature per week had the highest wellbeing.
So, spending just two hours outdoors every week could be a great way to improve your mental and physical wellbeing. Better yet, the research shows that it doesn’t matter how this quota is achieved – you can choose to spend an afternoon in the park or have a bunch of shorter visits, it’s all equally beneficial.
A lot of people tend to have an “all or nothing” mindset when it comes to nature-based activities, thinking that it only counts if you go far from home, somewhere rural, away from buildings. That’s not true – it’s just about being close to trees, grass, water, animals, or flowers. Even time spent in your own garden counts!
Making nature accessible for all
If you live with disability or a condition that makes it hard to spend time outdoors, there are some alternative and creative ways to get your dose of nature. Just listening to nature sounds can support brain function, while looking at images of nature can improve mood and perspective on challenges. Another study found that nature contact through virtual reality had positive impacts for people who were not able to spend time outdoors.
At a local level, there are some great national parks and walking trails in South Australia with nature spaces that wheelchair users can enjoy.
How Enhanced Lifestyles can help you get out into nature
The team at Enhanced Lifestyles is ready to help you incorporate more nature into your routine.
Our Lifestyle Attendants can help you build outdoor activities into your day to help you get out and about, just ask!
Plus, our Support Coordinators and Psychosocial Recovery Coaches (PRCs) can help you find groups or activities that provide nature exposure. You can also ask to hold your next catch-up in a natural setting. Take it from us: your PRC would love to soak up some sun at your local park.
Respecting nature and staying safe
Natural settings are beautiful, peaceful, and ripe for exploring, but we need to protect them so they can stay that way. If you’re going to enjoy some nature contact, try not to disturb wildlife or vegetation, and take any rubbish with you instead of leaving it there.
It’s also worth being aware of possible hazards in nature and how to avoid them:
- Enjoy wildlife from a distance – contact is not only potentially unsafe for you, it’s also unsafe for animals to become too friendly with humans.
- Be sun smart even if you’re only going out for a little while. Remember: slip, slop, slap, seek, slide!
- Take a bottle of water with you and stay hydrated, especially if you’ll be doing any type of exercise.
- If it’s a hot day, limit the time you spend outside and be vigilant for the signs of heatstroke.
- Keep an eye out for snakes, spiders, and any other critters that might be dangerous.
- Do not consume any fungi, berries, or other vegetation that you come across. Similarly, avoid drinking water from natural sources, such as lakes or rivers.
- If you are going alone, make sure someone knows where you are and when you expect to be back.