Many of us feel a deep connection to nature and can sense the calming effect that spending time outdoors has on ourselves and our family. Intuitively it makes sense, we evolved over thousands of years living among nature and have only recently have separated our daily lives from the outdoors. Its fascinating to learn the science behind why we feel that way and to hear about all the benefits that nature has on our minds and bodies that we might not immediately recognize. The amazing thing is that these benefits are so accessible, you might already be doing some of these things every day.
Beyond our own awareness of the mindfulness and calm that being outdoors can bring, science has repeatedly demonstrated that there are huge physiological benefits to spending time in nature. In 2010 research on forest bathing found that compounds called phytoncides, wood essential oils, breathed in during time spent outdoors over a weekend trip in wooded areas can lower adrenaline and increase immune function for over 30 days. But you don’t have to spend a long weekend camping in the woods to get the benefits of being outside, even shorter amounts of time spend outdoors and even just looking out a window at nature have shown to be helpful!
A more recent study cites that “living in greener urban areas is associated with lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalization, mental distress, and ultimately mortality, among adults; and lower risks of obesity and myopia in children.” The researchers found that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature (less than 20 minutes a day!), resulted in “consistently higher levels of both health and well-being than those who reported no exposure.” By teasing out the physical activity association with being outdoors from passively being in nature, the study helps to show both the physical and psycho-physiological benefit gained from being outdoors even without exercise. Of course, outdoor exercise – running, hiking, walking, biking – will certainly improve your health but so will simply sitting in a natural setting and exploring the outdoors without breaking a sweat!
Taking this a step further, proponents of grounding or earthing argue that direct physical contact with the earth has transformative health benefits. Simply walking in bare feet on the earth or coming in direct contact with the ground has been shown to reduce inflammation, pain, and stress in the body and also to improve circulation, energy, and quality of sleep. Why? “Earthing restores a primordial electric connection to the Earth lost over time because of human lifestyle. Earthing appears to correct what we call an ‘electron deficiency syndrome,’ an overlooked and likely significant cause of multiple health disorders.” Fascinating studies using thermal imaging have been able to show how earthing positively alters blood flow and lymph circulation after just 20-60 minutes of earthing.
Several studies suggest spending time outdoors also provides an added sense of well-being specifically for women. According to REI’s National Study on Women in the Outdoors, time in nature serves as an escape from the pressures unique to women in everyday life (i.e. conforming to expectations about weight, appearance, demeanor, etc., and putting in longer hours on the job, childcare and housework). Studies also show that women need a longer exposure time to nature to see a measurable stress reduction—which is why, explains Dr. Razani, women shouldn’t feel that taking time outside is an indulgent or extra thing to do, but rather a critical component of overall health.
We don’t need a sweeping national forest or even a city park to experience the benefits of nature. Simply getting outside, seeing what the weather is like, and breathing deeply can provide relief. It should also be noted that many experience barriers to accessing this kind of “traditional nature” anyway. One study found that predominantly white neighborhoods have 11 times more green space than neighborhoods where 40% of residents are an ethnic minority, and affluent suburbs are more likely to have an above-average quantity of green space. The Trust for Public Land estimates that 100 million people in the U.S., including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk from home yet all of us can get benefits of nature and the outdoors.
Reconnecting with the earth is easy even with a busy schedule and for city dwellers:! Take time to walk barefoot outdoors for 20-30 minutes, or sit or stand on grass, dirt, sand, or even concrete (which is still conductive). It’s free and simple. Bring your kids and pets along as well – they can all reap the benefits of reconnecting with the Earth!