Our health is under threat. Exhaustion, attention disorders, allergies, chronic illnesses, cancer, burn-out and depression are widespread and on the rise. While techno-economic progress significantly extended our life span, the number of healthy years is declining. Is that what we want? To spend those extra years in dis-ease? With budgets slinking, effective health care is on every one’s mind. Yet the debate largely overlooks our number one health care and happiness provider: Nature. Or, to quote Jonathan Patz, Director of the Global Health Institute, “Nature can save more lives, promote more health and deal with more ill health than the public health sector”. And this assessment is not coming out of thin air. Research into the impact of nature on our health, happiness, mental capacities and wits is mounting. What follows is a short overview of scientific insights that illustrate why nature is good for you:
1. Nature restores attention and improves concentration
Scientific studies show that the ability to focus and concentrate is higher when participants spent time in nature compared to spending time in urban environments. For example, participants of a proofreading test that went for a nature walk beforehand, scored much better than those that walked the city. The positive effect of nature on our attention span is so high that ‘it is a safe, cheap, and accessible means to reduce symptoms of ADHD’ according to research published in Journal of Attention Disorders in 2008.
2. Nature enhances short-term memory
Similar investigations tested participants’ memory abilities. A study with students that participated in a memory test showed that those that redid the test after spending time in nature, scored 20% better than during the first trial. Respondents that spent time in the city, on the other hand, did not improve their scores. The positive effect of nature on memory is even apparent in groups suffering from depressions.
3. Nature revitalises mental energy
More and more studies illustrate that spending time in nature reverses mental exhaustion. The restorative impact of nature is even so high that merely looking at nature footage or looking at nature through a window reboots mental energy. In fact, research published in Psychological Science in 2008 shows that employees with a view on nature at their desk perform better than those without. Their job satisfaction is also higher.
4. Nature boosts cognitive capacity and creativity
Next to promoting mental energy and memory, nature immersions also greatly stimulate our creativity. Research that tested the problem-solving capacity of students, found that students immersed in nature for four days scored 50% better than students immersed in urban environments. Thinking outside the box is thus not enough. To considerably advance ingenuity and resourcefulness requires thinking ‘outside’, literally. Or to quote a study published in Psychological Science in 2008:
“Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost.” Nature fits that bill perfectly.
5. Nature improves physical health
Science is increasingly showing the beneficial impacts of nature on staying and getting healthy. For instance, studies with students and elderly show that spending time in nature significantly reduces inflammation. Additionally, research from the Nippon Medical School in Japan shows that time spent in forests increases the number of natural killer cells, which promote our immune defence, while expanding the functional activity of these antiviral cells. What is more, the research also showed that forest visits increase the amount of intracellular anticancer proteins and this effect lasted for a full week after the trip. None of these effects were observed after city trips. Other studies show that natural aromas secreted by evergreen trees, known as phytoncide, are associated with improvements in the activity of human frontline immune defenders. Nature’s health benefits are thus wide-ranging and strong associations between access to nature and longer, healthier lives are increasingly revealed by science. A study in Environmental Health Perspectives of 2016 for example, found a 12% lower mortality rate in people that live in close proximity to nature, even after correcting for socio-demographic background and smoking habits, with the biggest improvements related to reduced risk of death from cancer, lung disease or kidney disease.
6. Nature relieves stress and boosts bliss
A multitude of scientific investigations showcase that wandering through the forests reduces your blood pressure and heart rate. What is more, forest immersions reduce the levels of cortisol, our stress hormone, while increasing the levels of serotonin, the ‘happy’ chemical that operates in our nervous system. Selhub & Logan, researchers at Harvard and authors of the book ‘Your brain on nature’, put it like this: “Spending time in a forest can reduce symptoms of psychological stress, depression and hostility while improving sleep, vigour and vitality”. A recent study by Berkeley University and BBC Earth showed that even being exposed to nature footage increases feelings of contentedness, joy, wonder, awe, amusement and curiosity while reducing feelings of tiredness, anxiety and stress. Nature thus not only makes us healthier, she makes us happier too.
The above illustrates that we urgently need to widen our perspective when debating health care, city planning, work, environment and education. The time of silo thinking is over. More and more people are standing up to protect that old tree, that last piece of nature or open space remaining. Many local initiatives, like urban gardening, urban bee keeping, urban forests, school gardens and transition town & permaculture initiatives, are devoted to bringing nature back into the city. In working to reconnect humans to nature, these initiatives also set out to tackle the root cause of our problems of unsustainability: the illusion of separation between humans and nature. We are nature too and what we do to nature, we ultimately do to ourselves. Or is it a coincidence that burn-out is on the rise in a period of global warming?
What a wicked system we have devised: we sacrifice our health & nature to make money and then we sacrifice our money & nature to restore our health.
Time to get things naturally straight from the start. Time to acknowledge the crucial role nature plays in our health & happiness. Time to shift our relationship with nature from exploitative to regenerative. Time to bring nature back into our cities and offices because every one benefits. Time to renature our nature.
(Pics by Raf Gorissen)