Up to 83% of racially diverse American adults say nature is important to their physical health, according to a 2016 landmark study that surveyed 12,000 adults and children. Nearly all parents (90%) say nature makes their kids healthier and happier. Still, most Americans spend 95-97% of their time indoors, according to a study conducted by the national initiative The Nature of Americans. Growing research shows what most humans already know intuitively – getting outside is good for you.
Making time for outdoor recreation, exercise, and relaxation is becoming more and more challenging in the modern world.
Studies show that time in nature positively impacts mental, cognitive, physical, spiritual, and social health.
There are many ways to implement outdoor activities into your busy schedule – from forest bathing to earthing or simply exercising outdoors.
Simple outdoor activities like standing outside and watching the sunrise for five minutes can reduce chronic illness and improve sleep.
Americans know they need nature
"It is increasingly normal to spend little time outside," the authors of The Nature of Americans report stated in 2016. But in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, a record number of people went outside. As a result, outdoor recreation grew to 168.1 million participants in 2022—55% of the U.S. population of six-year-olds and older. However, according to the 2023 Outdoor Participation Trends Report, those numbers are already declining—people are heading back indoors.
The Nature of America report states that 8 to 12-year-old children play three times longer with their devices and televisions than they do outside. In Richard Louv’s 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods,” he called this a nature deficit disorder, being the first to coin the philosophical idea.
With about 1,000 published studies about the effects of nature on human health and behavior, evidence shows that humans know nature is crucial to their wellness, but the indoors' warmth, safety, and electrical plugs are more enticing.
The health benefits of nature and the outdoors
The Nature of Americans report stated that “connection to nature is not a dispensable amenity, but rather is essential to the health, economic prosperity, quality of life, and social well-being of all Americans.”
With a growing interest in nature's impact on humans, research is mounting a vast list of health benefits from being outside and interacting with nature's many elements, like sun, animals, soil, sounds, water, and air.
Mental and cognitive benefits
Many study subjects report feeling a general sense of well-being and restoration after being outdoors.
According to experts, the overstimulation and strain of modern living cause the brain to become overstimulated, increasing stress and attention fatigue. The calmer, more expansive, and stimulating environment of nature could provide a break from the external noise and detail management that constantly bombard the modern mind. This step back from over-stimulation may explain why study subjects experience better attention capacity and an overall sense of restoration.
Research reveals these mental and cognitive health benefits:
- Decreased depression, worry, and anxiety
- Deeper reflection and insight into one’s life and problems
- Diminished stress
- Restored attention and ability to focus
- Heightened creativity
- Greater sense of relaxation
- Enhanced self- and body image
- Boosted sense of “body functionality”
- Reduced negative emotions, like anger and sadness
- Improved coping skills
Being outside has many health benefits, but the main one is a calmer autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is divided into two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
At rest, the nervous system is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. This system is referred to as "rest and digest." The sympathetic nervous system takes over when the body is under stress or in a "fight or flight" response.
When you engage with the natural environment, your autonomic nervous system shifts from a stressed sympathetic to a relaxed parasympathetic state.
The shift to the calming parasympathetic nervous system has many benefits to your overall well-being, including:
- Improved heart rate variability, a physical indicator of stress
- Lower blood pressure and heart rate
- Enhanced immunity
- Calmer autoimmune conditions, including reduced chronic inflammation
- Increased motivation to play and exercise
- Reduced mortality
Since many people are becoming less religious in recent decades, the definition of spirituality has evolved. Finding a deeper meaning and purpose in life, whether or not it is connected to a religious faith, is now included in the definition. Anything that fills one with deep happiness and significance could be considered spiritual. Spirituality, according to certain spiritual leaders, is the ability to relate to something good that exists outside of oneself.
Many believe that they can have spiritual experiences in nature that are deeper than anything else. Some experts and scientists describe this as the "science of awe" and connectedness to nature.
- A Science of Awe. The Science of Awe is a white paper that the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center wrote in 2018 for the John Templeton Foundation. The paper examines the scientific evidence regarding what actually occurs in the human body during profound moments of awe. After spending time in beautiful and inspiring natural settings, study participants frequently report feeling as though they are in the presence of something grander and bigger. They also frequently express an enhanced belief in a higher power and a decreased obsession with money and materialism.
Connectedness to nature. Some experts argue that connecting with nature draws attention away from narrow self-interest. Instead, we feel a greater sense of purpose belonging to a beautiful, vast Earth and universe.
Connecting with nature may improve how humans interact and connect, possibly even creating deeper generosity and trust. Studies show these possible social benefits:
- Stronger sense of community
- Enriched social interactions and connectedness
- Greater agreeableness
- Enhanced patience with different perspectives
- Boosted empathy
- Expanded generosity
- Deepened trust
Practical ways to connect with nature
Research demonstrates that real nature offers more potent health benefits than virtual. However, spending time virtually in nature—for example, by using an app to listen to nature sounds or watching breathtaking videos—can also have a positive effect on wellness.
Making time for nature is challenging in the modern age. Most people work, play, eat, and live indoors, especially since television and the Internet arrived. To increase outdoor living, try these activities:
- Go for a scenic drive. According to a 2013 study published in the Landscape and Urban Planning journal, even a short drive in an urban forest can move you into a more relaxed state. Their study subjects reported increased parasympathetic system activity and a positive mood.
- Spend time gazing at the sky. A new field of research called skychology studies sky mindfulness's impact on health and wellness. Spending time gazing at the sky may increase well-being, reduce stress, improve focus, diminish one's fixation on personal problems, and increase life satisfaction.
- Make time for a forest walk. Spending time in a forest is called Shinrin-yoku in Japan, translated as "forest bathing." This forest therapy includes immersing your five senses in the forest's sights, smells, sounds, feelings and even tastes. Studies suggest forest bathing can help reduce heart disease, cancer, anxiety, and depression.
- Walk barefoot. Walking barefoot or with genuine leather shoe soles, gardening with bare hands, laying in the grass or sand, plodding barefoot through mud or sand, or swimming in natural water may reduce inflammation, pain, and stress and improve blood flow, energy, sleep, and mood. A growing group of scientists and health practitioners believe earthing, also called grounding, is an overlooked tool for health and healing.
- Watch the sunrise and sunset outdoors as often as possible. Extensive studies point to the robust mental and physical health benefits of light therapy and aligning one's day with the natural cycle of sunrise and sunset. Viewing the sunrise, even just for five minutes each morning, helps set your sleep and metabolic cycles and increase melatonin levels, which improves sleep, helps reduce chronic illness, and increases intensive care unit (ICU) survival rates.
- Meditate with the real sounds of nature. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published a review of the health benefits of natural sounds in 2021. The report found that listening to natural sounds may lower stress, improve mood, decrease pain, and enhance cognition. You can also download an app with natural sounds if you lack time to drive to a natural landscape.
- Exercise outdoors as much as possible. Try to get as much exercise outside as you can. Living near green spaces has been linked to reduced rates of obesity, stress, and mortality, according to studies. Furthermore, studies show that being in nature makes people more motivated to exercise. Since physical inactivity is inherently linked to chronic illness, The Lancet journal named it the fourth leading cause of death in 2012. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2022 Global Status Report on Physical Activity, “more than 80% of adolescents and 27% of adults do not meet WHO’s recommended levels of physical activity.” Think about taking your weightlifting, yoga, and jump-roping routine outside. To build up your stamina for longer outdoor hikes, start rucking. To get outside during the winter, consider cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
- Take your lunch break outside. Whenever you can, get outside during your work breaks. There's power in refreshing your mind and body outdoors before heading into a meeting, starting a new project, or finishing a long work day.
A growing body of evidence and research indicates that natural environments are essential to human health. Leaving the house and taking a vacation from the never-ending chores, schedules, and gadgets of contemporary life could be the most effective health plan of 2023.
- Environment and Behavior journal. Why Is Nature Beneficial? The Role of Connectedness to Nature.
- Psychological Science. The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature.
- PLOS ONE journal. Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings.
- Ecopsychology journal. Positive Rational Acceptance of Body Image Threats Mediates the Association Between Nature Exposure and Body Appreciation.
- Journal of Environmental Psychology. An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality.
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- Environment and Behavior journal. Where Does Community Grow?: The Social Context Created by Nature in Urban Public Housing.
- The Lancet: Planetary Health. Green spaces and mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies.