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The Health Benefits of Spending Time in Nature

Sunbathing

Spending some time outside might be a lot of fun, especially when it starts to warm up. But did you know it actually has health benefits? Health benefits significant enough to get published in peer-reviewed journals, even!

Long-term studies have shown that living near forests and green is associated with a lower risk of death from all causes, especially respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease. Intervention studies have backed up the association by showing that nature exposure reduces stress. Living near a lot of green space may also encourage more physical activity, sun exposure, and air quality.

Here’s a look at the potential benefits of nature exposure, and how to take advantage of them even if you live in a city.

The Evidence for Nature Exposure

Even One-Time Exposure to Nature Reduces Stress.

Short-term studies show that exposure to green space and nature immediately reduces physiological markers of stress. In other words, it’s not just that people “feel better;” they actually have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower stress levels as measured by heart rate variability (which is basically a measurement of how much total stress you’re under).

This has mostly been studied in Japan. It even has a special name: “shinrin-yoku,” which roughly translates to “forest bathing.” It’s like sunbathing, but in the forest. The point is to just be present in the forest environment and really take it in. It’s not about power-walking through with your iPod on full blast; it’s about really being in the forest while you’re in the forest.

Yeah, OK, it sounds a bit kooky, but look at the research:

Living Around Green Space Also Has Other Benefits

So far, we’ve been looking at studies where researchers plunked people down in the forest for an hour or so and then took them away again. The problem with this is that it doesn’t measure the way people actually behave. In real life, people don’t all go to natural areas at equal rates. If they live near the park, or if they have green space right in their backyard, they get a lot more exposure.

Living near a forest or a park day in and day out, or just living around a lot of green space, has cumulative benefits on top of the stress reduction. Here are three potential benefits:

The Long-Term Benefits of Nature Exposure

Here’s what we know so far:

All these benefits have long-term payoff.

A systematic review of populations worldwide found that more residential green space was associated with protection against death from cardiovascular disease.

Even more recently, a new study in American women found that women who lived around more green space had a 12% lower rate of death from all causes.  The effect was particularly strong for respiratory diseases (like asthma) and cancer. For people living in European cities, more time spent in green spaces is associated with better mental health and vitality scores. In residential homes for the elderly, nice gardens promote a sense of well-being and emotional health.

It’s easy to see how the short-term benefits like more Vitamin D and lower stress levels might translate into long-term benefits like lower rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Summing it Up

Exposure to the natural world has measurable health benefits. Even a brief exposure reduces stress levels, and living around a lot of green space encourages people to be more physically active, gets them a little more Vitamin D, and reduces air pollution.

If you live in a rural area: congratulations! Enjoy your cleaner air and lower cortisol levels.

If you live in an urban area, remember that even walking in city parks counts as “green space.” Getting a little more exposure to the natural world is one practical thing you can do to reduce stress, get a little more sunshine, and make exercise more enjoyable.