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Nature is Nurture

How we can enhance exercise, decrease stress, and find healing

Imagine this setting for a moment…

You step out of the car and finish lacing up your running shoes. You notice a tall border of trees guarding the perimeter of the path. Branches and leaves criss-cross to make a patchwork of forestry in a background. The sound of a nearby road makes its way through but is quickly drowned out by a gurgling fountain. The aroma of damp soil and pine needles tease the nose out of its reverie. You walk forward a few paces and to your left an ambitious squirrel trapezes its way to the top of an acorn tree. Chirps and coos of finches and mourning doves filter through the cicadas’ consistent buzz. After just thirty seconds in this setting, you feel a soft smile play across your lips. Your body relaxes, your mind settles, and your breath evens. ‘Why, for goodness’ sake, don’t I do this more often?’ you ask yourself.

It may seem bizarre to propose spending time in nature as a type of cross-training, but given the subtle but essential benefits I alluded to above, I find it to be imperative.  As an indoor athlete who spends numerous hours training indoors each day, I try to take advantage of the chances I have to spend outdoors. Faced with the choice between running on a treadmill and running a hiking trail, you know where to find me. Spin class or navigating city park bike paths? Easy choice. I’ve always been a fan of efficiency and taking your workout outdoors is killing two birds with one stone: staying in shape and absorbing all that vitamin D and fresh air. This kind of workout serves as a major re-energizer.  Obviously, the benefits of the outdoors aren’t exclusive to athletes looking to get a workout with a view in. In fact, even if I’ve been training outdoors, I still enjoy spending leisurely moments in my backyard, near a river or a lake, or on a park bench. When you’re working out, you don’t get a chance to fully appreciate everything you’re seeing and hearing and smelling. At a slower pace, a meditative quality of appreciation comes into play. I sometimes even do yoga and stretch outdoors, as being in contact with soil and grass can be calming and grounding (and especially helpful with jet-lag for those of us who are frequent travellers). 

Bio-what?

Cross-training aside, why am I drawn outside? I know it’s “good for you,” but I still spend copious amounts of time indoors. People closest to me know I love nature, but I’m quite certain I get outside no more than the average individual. On some level we all know we could do with more outdoor time. I’ve never heard someone reflect on the disagreeable walk they took through a park. We always seem to return from our outdoor adventures refreshed and reenergized. This could be explained by biophilia, the theory that humans have an innate connection and attraction to Nature, with a capital N. According to Oxford Dictionary online, it’s “a theory of the biologist E. O. Wilson; an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world.”

We spend 87% of our time in buildings and a further 5.5% in a vehicle, which results in 92.5% of our time being spent indoors. That leaves a measly 7.6% of our time spent outdoors. – US Environmental Protection Agency

The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants, US Environmental Protection Agency
 

 

A society of urbanites

Despite what some would argue is a deep-seated desire to be in nature, urban living is rapidly becoming our new norm, with 55% of the world population living in cities – a number projected by the UN to reach 68% by 2050. Urbanization has come to the forefront of global health issues with “cities becoming epicenters for chronic, non-communicable physical and mental health conditions,” say Shanahan et al. in their study on health benefits of dose-based natural experiences. In recognition of this shift, there has been considerable mobilization on the grassroots level, and slowly at a governmental level, to incorporate more green spaces in our urban areas. Out of doors, we’ve seen an increase in community gardens, urban parks and conservation of forest and marsh areas. In indoor urban spaces, there’s been a trend towards indoor vertical plant walls, increased indoor potted flora, and garden spaces integrated with architectural design.

To get a clearer sense of the direness of the situation, it may help to take a look at the negative physiological and psychological effects of large amounts of time spent indoors. Compared to rural settings, populations in urban settings present with a higher prevalence of depression, higher blood pressure, less social cohesion and less aptitude for physical activity. The detriment comes from both lack of exposure to nature (plants, wildlife, sunlight, fresh air) and a surplus of exposure to indoor pollution (a very real problem most of us are naively unaware of). If you want a shocking list of facts and figures about indoor air quality in Europe, check out this The Indoor Generation focus piece by Velux. For a look at more information about indoor air quality on a global scale, check out Our World in Data or the World Health Organization.

Many studies have shown the inverse relationship between time in nature and levels of stress, anxiety and depression. We’re not even talking about plunging into the depths of the Amazon, just a fifteen-minute walk through a city park. Now that we’ve begun to accept the numerous studies concerning the benefits of meditation, it’s time we turn our focus to a different type of mindfulness – being present in the natural beauty that surrounds us.

“We often reach for medication when we’re unwell but exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognised as both preventing and helping treat disease. Our study shows that the size of these benefits can be enough to have a meaningful clinical impact.” – Professor Andy Jones, University of East Anglia Norwich Medical School

Reaping the rewards

The most generally agreed upon benefits of time spent outdoors are numerous: reduced risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stress, and high blood pressure, as well as increased sleep duration, creativity, and tendency to be psychically active. However, if the physical and mental benefits are not enough encouragement, we should take a look at the subsequent societal and fiscal benefits exhibited by two separate studies in the UK and Australia.

A study in the UK showed a reduced level of salivary cortisol (a physiological marker of stress) when the subject was exposed to green space.  The close proximity to nature was found to result in lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress – a significant figure for a country where 11.7 million work days are missed annually due to stress, depression or anxiety.

Here’s a direct look at the analysis by an Australian research study:

“A dose-response analysis for depression and high blood pressure suggest that visits to outdoor green spaces of 30minutes or more during the course of a week could reduce the population prevalence of these illnesses by up to 7% and 9% respectively. Given that the societal costs of depression alone in Australia are estimated at AUD$12.6 billion per annum, savings to public health budgets across all health outcomes could be immense.”

Skeptic or Savoir?

There seems to be a sense of disbelief or skepticism when benefits of outdoor time are associated with more serious diseases and conditions. We know being in nature makes us feel better, but healing us? Not quite convinced. We prefer to be taken to the closest hospital, clinic, or psychiatrist’s office. I don’t wish to downplay the seriousness of many of these conditions: they are significant and often require care in the hands of an experienced practitioner. But if the research is suggesting a supplementary or alternative answer to such complicated and expensive problems, shouldn’t we explore it? There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Don’t have time to take a walk every day? Bring the outdoors to you in the form of a potted plant in your home or office. There’s a classic study (Ulrich 1984), which shows the improved recovery of gall bladder surgery patients with a window view out onto a group of deciduous trees versus another group with a view of a brick wall. The first group recovered fast, required less painkillers and had fewer complaints recorded in nurses’ notes. Now that’s powerful. Simply seeing green from afar can improve your life. You don’t necessarily need a view for that, just a house plant.

In a society of air conditioned cubicles and heated havens, we’ve become accustomed to shielding ourselves from any mildly uncomfortable change to our atmosphere. A simple fact we took for granted for ages – that humans and nature share a symbiotic relationship – has fallen to the wayside in favour of temperature-consistent pillows and antibacterial soap. We’ve hand-sanitized our way out of communion with nature. It’s time we get our hands dirty again. Yes, we always have our excuses, whether it’s the middle of winter (too cold!) or the middle of summer (too hot!). Weather-appropriate gear and necessary precautions take care of that. Once we get outside, however, we inevitably stumble upon the thought, ‘Why, for goodness’ sake, don’t I do this more often?

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