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Nature benefits your mental and physical health

Getting outdoors makes you happier and healthier

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First published: 19.Dec.2020

Why nature is good for your mental and physical health

Being outdoors and exposed to nature has a positive impact on your mental and physical health and well-being.

This article will review some of the scientific evidence that shows how "Greenspace exposure" or interacting with the great outdoors improves your health.

It will also explore the mechanisms by which green natural environments act upon your mind and body.

Learn the benefits of spending time in nature and why being outside is important.

Why nature is good for your mental and physical health.
A. Whittall

Health Benefits from being outside

Twohig-Bennett and Jones (2018) (1) conducted a meta-analysis (a statistical study that brings together data from different studies to analyze them); they found strong evidence that being in the "great outdoors" has a positive impact on your health:

Being more exposed to "greenspace" lowered all of the following health indicators:

  • All-cause mortality.
  • Cardiovascular mortality.
  • Cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
  • Heart rate.
  • Diastolic blood pressure.
  • HDL cholesterol
  • Type II diabetes
  • Incidence of stroke, asthma, high blood pressure, altered blood lipids, and coronary heart disease.

There was also evidence of positive effects regarding respiratory mortality and longer sleep duration.

Furthermore, there was an "increased incidence of good self-reported health," with the subjects reporting that they felt better.

The authors concluded that "Greenspace exposure is associated with numerous health benefits."

Mental Health benefits from being outdoors

Buckley and Westaway (2020) (2) reported therapeutic effects of outdoor tourism such as hiking and trekking in nature, health benefits that cannot be explained by exercise alone.

The mental health benefits include the following:

  • Psychological or emotional rescue
  • Recognition of a previously missing life component.
  • Flow-on effects on family members.
  • Wellbeing; described as " happiness, gratitude, relaxation, clarity and insights, nature appreciation, challenge and capability, and companionship and community effects."

The authors estimate that this type of outdoor leisure activity reduces de costs of poor mental health by around 7.5%.

Lower stress and better health

Kondo, Jacoby SF, and South (2018) (3) investigated the effects of exposure to nature on stress.

Your health is affected by the environment (think office, traffic jam, crowded mall), so it isn't surprising that outdoor environments have a beneficial effect on stress.

This study looked into activities such as gardening, exercising or walking in the outdoors, and nature-viewing and found that: "Heart rate, blood pressure, and self-report measures provide the most convincing evidence that spending time in outdoor environments, particularly those with green space, may reduce the experience of stress, and ultimately improve health."

Meredith et al. (2020). (4) showed that even minimum doses in nature have a positive effect on mental health. They studied college-aged students and found that brief interactions with the outdoors, such as 10 or 20 minutes walking or even sitting in a natural environment, had a positive impact on their mental health when compared to "the same amount of time spent outdoors in urbanized settings".

So it isn't the outcome of relaxing for a short period, but of the interaction with a natural setting.

Take-home point

Being outdoors reduces stress and improves your health.

Virtual Natural settings

Browning et al. (2020) (5) showed that a virtual natural environment, such as those provided by photographs, videos, or virtual reality can also have a positive effect.

They revealed that these non-natural outdoors "with natural elements boosted mood, enhanced executive cognitive functions, promoted physiological stress recovery or reduced pain with little to no side effects."

How does Nature act upon your health?

These studies have shown that there is a very positive effect of nature, outdoors, and natural setting on human health, but which are the mechanisms by which this greenspace exposure acts upon your health?

Hartig, Mitchell, de Vries, and Frumkin (2014) (6) investigated the different "pathways" that link Nature to beneficial health outcomes. They found four critical pathways:

  • Air quality
  • Physical activity
  • Social cohesion
  • Stress reduction

Air Quality

Trees and plants in general improve air quality by removing particles from the air and some air pollutants like ozone, sulfur, and nitrogen oxides.

They produce shade that lowers the temperature in urban settings.

Being outdoors also gets you away from indoor pollutants and volatile organic compounds such as benzene or formaldehyde found in furniture, paint, and household cleaners.

The downside of trees is that they release pollen that can affect people who suffer from asthma and allergies. They also release some plant hydrocarbons (terpenes and isoprene).

Physical Activity

Several studies have shown that engaging in physical activity improves both mental and physical health.

The outdoor environment promotes physical activity because it offers a good setting to do certain activities (walking, jogging, hiking, cycling, gardening, etc.)

Social Cohesion

Social relationships have a documented positive effect on well-being and overall health.

Friendly relationships, social connections, and the sense of belonging and acceptance are key elements of social cohesion.

Some studies have shown that there is a "positive relationship between social cohesion and natural environments," and that "that residents with more trees and grass around their buildings displayed less aggressive behavior, and their buildings were associated with fewer crimes."

Stress Reduction

Nature distances you from the common stress provoking factors (work, difficult relationships, daily routines) and therefore improves the feeling of well-being.

Outdoor environments eliminate nasty urban noises, lack ugly buildings, and are generally less densely populated, reducing crowding and enhancing privacy.

Hartig, Mitchell, de Vries, and Frumkin reported that "nature can reduce risk of illnesses involving chronic stress [and] help people restore their adaptive resources."

Beautiful natural scenery, green (forest) and blue (lakes, streams) have more restorative qualities than urban environments.

Studies suggest that nature provokes " reductions in self-reported anger, fatigue, anxiety, and sadness and an increase in feelings of energy.".

Closing Comments

Exposure to natural settings is good for your mental and physical health. It improves many health conditions from Type II diabetes, stroke, asthma, high blood pressure, altered blood lipids, and coronary heart disease to clinical depression, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's diseases (1)(2).

It reduces stress, anxiety, fatigue, and aggression and promotes positive mental states including happiness, gratitude, relaxation, and improved mental focus.

horses on the range with a backdrop of steep snowcapped granite mountains
The Great Outdoors is great for your health.

References and Further Reading

(1) Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental Research, 166, 628–637. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030

(2) Buckley, R., & Westaway, D. (2020). Mental health rescue effects of women's outdoor tourism: A role in COVID-19 recovery. Annals of tourism research, 85, 103041. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2020.103041

(3) Kondo MC, Jacoby SF, South EC. (2018). Does spending time outdoors reduce stress? A review of real-time stress response to outdoor environments. Health Place. 2018 May;51:136-150. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2018.03.001. Epub 2018 Mar 29.

(4) Meredith, G. R., Rakow, D. A., Eldermire, E., Madsen, C. G., Shelley, S. P., & Sachs, N. A. (2020). Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2942. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02942

(5) Browning, M., Shipley, N., McAnirlin, O., Becker, D., Yu, C. P., Hartig, T., & Dzhambov, A. M. (2020). An Actual Natural Setting Improves Mood Better Than Its Virtual Counterpart: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Data. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 2200. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.02200

(6) Hartig T, Mitchell R, de Vries S, Frumkin H. (2014). Nature and health. Annu Rev Public Health. 35:207-28. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032013-182443. Epub 2014 Jan 2. PMID: 24387090

About this Article

Being outdoors is good for your health and well-being, A. Whittall

©2018 Fit-and-Well.com, 06.Sept.2019. Updated. 13.Dec.2020. https://www.fit-and-well.com/wellness/being-outdoors-is-good-for-your-health.html

Tags: outdoors, nature, health, well-being, greenspace.

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Subject: Fit-and-Well.com. Being outdoors is good for your mental and physical health and well-being. Learn why getting outside and immersing in nature can benefit your health. Read the scientific evidence that explains why natural settings are good for you.

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