What Happens to Your Body When You Spend Time in Nature
Have you ever noticed that you feel better after spending time in nature? Maybe you took a walk in the sunshine during your lunch break, and you notice you’re a little more alert than usual when you return to work. Maybe you spent your weekend lounging at the beach, and your Sunday scaries feel less intense than they normally do. For me, I notice I feel less anxious and more grounded when I spend time under the sky instead of the ceiling.
There’s a scientific reason for that. A mounting amount of evidence shows us there are serious mental and physical benefits of spending time in the great outdoors. From preventing certain diseases and ailments to promoting better sleep and memory, keep reading to see six ways Mother Nature cares for our bodies and our minds.
It can boost vitamin D levels
According to Michael F. Holick, professor at Boston University’s School of Medicine, “It’s estimated that about a billion and a half to two billion people worldwide are vitamin D-deficient. It’s certainly the most common nutritional deficiency and likely the most common medical problem in the world.”
While you can boost vitamin D levels through diet and supplements, our bodies naturally produce it in the presence of the sun, which is important, seeing as vitamin D does everything from lowering blood pressure to boosting energy to strengthening bones through the absorption of calcium. Maintaining optimum vitamin D levels can also improve cardiovascular health, increase energy levels, and defend against health conditions such as osteoporosis. “The sun is our most important source of Vitamin D production,” Dr. Richard Firshein, founder of Layla Health tells HelloGiggles. “Vitamin D naturally boosts the immune system and reduces inflammation.”
With that being said, vitamin D production isn’t an excuse to lay out in the sun all day. UV rays are notoriously damaging to the skin, so take precautions when you’re outside by wearing sunscreen and seeking regular shade. Fifteen to 20 minutes spent in the sun is all it should take to boost your vitamin D levels.
It can reduce stress and improve your mood
Juggling our personal lives with professional responsibilities (and other external worries like, I don’t know, a worldwide pandemic, for example) can lead to a lot of stress on your mind and body. One way to relieve some of that stress and improve your mood is by taking a short walk through the park or any other natural environment. “Being boxed up all day increases stress,” Dr. Firshein warns. “Studies have shown being outdoors can improve creativity and focus.” In a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 64% of participants reported better mood and higher life satisfaction after spending an average of approximately 20 minutes in a park.
As if that’s not enough to convince you to step outside during your lunch break, another study found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment showed reduced neural activity in a part of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared to those who walked in an urban environment. The studies also state that spending time in natural environments could reduce the risk of depression.
It can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a disorder that’s characterized by depressive episodes that happen at the same time each year. It’s more than just “having the blues.” Symptoms include sleep and appetite issues, fatigue, and nausea, among other things. Interestingly enough, it’s most prevalent in the winter months and in geographical locations that lack sunlight. “Seasonal Affective Disorder is one of the risks people face when they spend too much time indoors, leading to anxiety and depression,” Dr. Firshein says. Depending on individual cases, remedies include talk therapy, medication, and light therapy. Another remedy is spending time in the great outdoors.
It can improve your memory and attention span
According to a study from the University of Michigan, interacting with nature for only an hour at a time (whether you’re in a warm or cold environment) can improve short-term memory and attention span by 20%. But here’s the interesting part: You don’t actually have to go outside to reap these cognitive benefits. According to the study, even looking at pictures of nature can improve “mental fatigue.” So, yes, changing your computer background to a picture of a grassy field or the ocean surf can actually benefit your brain.
It can increase your energy levels
Anyone who’s an avid coffee drinker knows what I’m talking about when I reference the dreaded mid-afternoon slump—it’s 2 p.m., you hit a metaphorical wall, and suddenly you’re craving another cup of cold brew. But instead of relenting to your coffee cravings, try going outside. According to the University of Rochester, research has shown that spending time outdoors can increase our sense of vitality. In other words, we feel more energetic and alive when we spend time outdoors, even if it’s just 20 minutes at a time.
Dr. Firshein seconds this research. “When it comes to energy and focus, spending time outdoors is one of the simplest medicines we have,” he says. “Studies show that even the smallest walks can boost energy and focus.”
It can improve your sleep quality
If sleep eludes you, you’re not alone. According to the CDC, 35% of adults report short sleep duration, which is defined as sleeping less than seven hours each night. What’s more, 30% of the general population experiences sleep disruption, and approximately 10% experience functional impairment consistent with insomnia. If you belong to this category, we have good news for you. According to research published in Preventative Medicine, spending time in nature can improve “insufficient sleep,” thus boosting overall sleep quality.
It can boost your immune system
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a Japanese practice that has since gained traction in other areas of the world for its purported stress-relief benefits. It involves going outside and sitting in nature while absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural landscape. You simply sit outside (there’s no walking, running, or exercise necessary).
According to the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, the practice of forest bathing has come to the attention of the medical community for its immunology benefits. One study, concluded by Dr. Qing Li, an Associate Professor at the Department of Hygiene and Public Health, discovered a link between forest bathing and higher rates of immune cell activity in Japanese adults, specifically the expression of anti-cancer proteins. A different study found a link between forest bathing and improved cardiovascular parameters in participants. This suggests that spending time in nature may help ward off disease.
It can benefit your circulatory system
"Fresh air oxygenates the blood and negative ions found near water’s edge are thought to neutralize some of the negative effects of free radical damage,” Dr. Firshein says. So what does that mean for your body? Well, oxygenated blood is paramount to our health and vitality. Oxygen itself is the key to the regeneration of cells, wound healing, optimal muscle function, and more. Spending time outside in the fresh air is all you need for improved circulation and overall health.