How nature can make you healthier

Want to relieve stress and anxiety and even lower your blood pressure? Get outside’here’s why

How nature can make you healthier

If paying attention to Mother Earth hasn’t been your highest priority, evidence shows there’s grounds to put it back at the top of your to-do list. Focusing on nature can actually help your health. Spending time at the park, walking in the woods or bonding with your backyard garden can benefit you in all kinds of ways, both physically and psychologically.

A classic cure

Doctors more than a thousand years ago believed that plants and gardens helped their patients get better. Greenery fell out of favour last century to make way for healthcare settings that were more sterile, more efficient’and, sadly, more drab. But several studies have found that hospital patients who look at landscapes or visit gardens have less anxiety, elevated mood, a reduced need for pain relief and earlier recovery.

Now nature is making a comeback. St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, a hospital in southern Ontario, reviewed the research before rolling out a beautiful new surgical centre with textures and colours inspired by nature. In the hospital’s diagnostic imaging department, you can even watch a nature scene while you lie in a CT scanner.

‘What medicine has been recognizing increasingly is that the mind and the body aren’t separate, and what happens to one affects the other,’ says Dr. Conrad Sichler, a family physician and psychotherapist in Burlington, Ontario. Sichler regularly writes ‘nature prescriptions’ in which he directs patients to spend time in natural settings. Sometimes his prescriptions include a map of a local conservation area, other times they’re just two words: ‘Go outside.’

How nature helps

It’s simple. Getting outdoors in nature means you’re treating your lungs to fresh air and likely scoring a few minutes of exercise, both beneficial for your body. At the same time, you’re away from work and hassle, which is likely to calm your heart rate and lower your blood pressure.

You’re also immersed in green, a colour associated at least anecdotally with relaxation and psychological well-being. A 2009 study at a pediatric hospital found that children preferred rooms painted green or blue over all other colours. A Swiss study concluded that people find exercise more restorative when they do it outdoors.

And dare we say you’re also breathing in health-enhancing dust? Research on a common soil bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae suggests that this little bug, often inhaled when we’re in gardens or forests, has numerous health effects. It seems to boost serotonin levels in our brains, making us feel happier. It’s been shown in mice to increase learning ability and even improve asthma symptoms.

But Sichler points out, ‘A lot of this stuff isn’t super complicated, and we don’t need to get into obscure science to know it. I think it’s a matter of listening to what people’s experiences are.’ Ever feel touched by a beautiful sunrise, or in awe of a waterfall? ‘That stuff can’t help but uplift the human spirit.’

How to bring nature in

Want to include more nature in your daily life? Try working it into your routine, like biking or walking to work instead of taking a vehicle. Or set aside part of your schedule to spend time in a natural place. ‘There are so many rituals that stress people out, like driving to work,’ says Sichler. ‘Why not consciously choose rituals that can actually calm us, bring us back to ourselves, rejuvenate us, refresh us?’

What if you’re a nature virgin’if you lack experience hiking or camping, and aren’t a big fan of dirt, wind and bugs? You can start modestly, puttering in your flowerbed or planting a tree or two outside your window. You’ll still experience benefits. You may also find there’s strength in numbers: Tap into the growing trend of nature clubs and green gyms, which allow people to enjoy the outdoors as a group.

Just be sure to switch off the smartphone while you’re out there. Don’t discuss work challenges or marital problems. And instead of listening to your tunes, tune in to the sounds, sights and smells around you. ‘Do as little as possible other than be outside,’ says Sichler. ‘Just be as present as you can.’