I was sitting inside as I started to brainstorm for this post after being cooped up all morning. Since I work from home most days, I have to make an extra effort to schedule in outdoor time to avoid getting cabin-fever at night. Even in winter I find myself braving the cold to clear my mind after a long day, all bundled up like the abominal snowman.
(pause for a few seconds as I head outside)
I am now sitting on my back deck to take advantage of this last mild November day. Almost immediately I feel more at ease and mindful as I listen to the wind blowing and appreciate the mild warmth of the sun on my skin. The neighbours’ wind chimes and the last few bird calls are lulling me into a sense of calmness I wasn’t experiencing inside.
Is this a placebo effect? No. Science tells us that Nature can impact our mental and physical health in profound ways AND help us to live longer.
Before we delve into the research, I want you to step back and think about how much time you spend outside each day. You may walk to the subway or bus for 5 minutes on the way to and from work. You may walk 10 minutes to grab a coffee or a grab-and-go lunch during the week. But, are you cooped up inside the rest of the day for meetings and computer work, followed by chores and watching TV at night?
A survey conducted by the David Suzuki Foundation in 2012 found that 70% of youth spend an hour or less outdoors every day. The average American spends only 7% of their time outdoors (and a whopping 93% of time indoors!) according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
This is detrimental to your health and I only see the numbers getting worse as technology (and Netflix) improves.
Why Should I Get Outside?
How close you live to outdoor green space will significantly impact your mental and physical health and longevity.
People who live within a 1km radius of outdoor green space have significantly reduced rates of depression and anxiety, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, and coronary heart disease. And more green space is better: there was a 30% increased risk of anxiety and a 25% increased risk for depression in residents with only 10% green space within 1 km of their residence (as compared to those with 90% green space).
A Canadian study of 575,000 adults, all urban-dwelling, found that those who had access to urban green space lived longer, had less non-accident deaths, especially reduced respiratory-related deaths. In Florida, those who had more green space were less likely to die of stroke.
Do you need any more convincing evidence to lace up those runners and get out for walk?
People who are exposed to nature exercised more, experiences less stress and had more meaningful social relations. These factors boosted self esteem, improved immune function and reduced the incidence of chronic disease and mortality. You can really live a longer, healthier life if you get outdoors.
This Is Your Brain on Nature
When researchers induced cognitive fatigue by presenting study participants with mentally-challenging tasks, those who got outside for a nature walk afterwards (for 30-60 minutes) were able to focus and concentrate more effectively than those who didn’t (as measured by neuropsychological tests). The results were not merely due to an acute positive mental outlook from being outdoors. So, to be more productive, take a Nature break.
It’s time to take a “forest-bath”
The Japanese practice of “forest bathing” (which literally means to have a short, leisurely visit to a forest) has been shown to lower: oxidative stress, inflammation, blood pressure, pulse rate and the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. It improves natural killer cell immune count and activity to ward off infections. You don’t need to spend all day in the forest/nature; even 10 minutes can have huge benefits.
What you can do to inject more nature into your daily routine
Awareness is the first step. Create a nature journal and track how much time you spend outdoors every day. Record how you felt before you went outside and then how you felt once you returned. You could even rate your stress levels before and after (ie 0 = no stress; 10 = maximum stress).
Step back from your daily routine and see how you can incorporate more time in nature. Instead of using your 20-min break to surf the internet, use that time to get out for a short, brisk walk or to do some yard work if you work from home.
Plan an evening or weekend social or solo activity that revolves around nature. Try hiking, biking, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Instead of meeting a friend for a drink or coffee, make a point of grabbing a coffee or tea to go so you can walk and catch up at the same time.
Leave the car at home. Walk or bike to run your errands or get to that meeting. Your mind and body will thank you (and so will your boss!).