Publix GreenWise Market Magazine - May 2008
Harness the healing power of time spent outdoors.
Though it happened more than 40 years ago, Dan Shelton remembers it like it was yesterday. "My family had just moved to rural Illinois, and I was standing on a riverbank, looking at a field and some woods," he recalls. He was only 6 years old, and life at home was tumultuous. Yet Shelton says that while standing there, alone with the trees and grass, he had an emotionally healing experience. "I felt so peaceful," he says. "I remember deeply feeling that somehow I was meant to be there."
For Shelton, frequent contact with nature played a key role in his emotional and spiritual health until the late 1980s, when he moved to Chicago. "It was my first time living in the big city," he says. Without easy access to the natural world he loved, he slipped into depression. "I didn't experience any relief until I moved back to South Carolina nine months later."
Since then Shelton has made it his mission to help others get back to nature via workshops he conducts. Shelton is just one of many involved in the emerging field of ecotherapy┐the practice of promoting mental and physical well-being by deepening one's relationship with the natural environment. Like Shelton, "many people have some of the deepest experiences they've ever had through the natural world," says Linda Buzzell-Saltzman, a psychotherapist and founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy. Yet today many folks are more disconnected from nature than ever. "People are realizing that something has gone profoundly wrong in the human/nature relationship," she says.
Science Weighs In
Most of us know intuitively that spending time outdoors feels good, and a growing body of research supports the notion that reconnecting with the natural world has a powerful impact on mental and physical well-being.
Researchers at the University of Essex in England compared a group of people who walked in a local mall with those who walked in a wooded, grassy park with surrounding lakes. While more than 70 percent of the outdoor walkers reported a decrease in depressed mood afterward, feelings of depression either failed to change or increased among more than half of the mall walkers. What's more, nearly 90 percent of the outdoor walkers said their overall mood improved after their stroll, compared with only about 45 percent of the mall walkers.
Getting back to nature may do your body good as well. A study by Dutch researchers (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, July 2006) included more than 250,000 people who filled out surveys in which they rated their general health. Using home addresses, the researchers then estimated the percentage of green space—city parks, farmland, forests and nature conservation areas—within a few kilometers of each person's home. They found that more green space was associated with better overall health.
In children, the beneficial effects of nature are equally striking. One study (Environment and Behavior, November 2000) looked at children whose families were moving into new homes. Researchers found that a greener environment after the move, defined as more views of natural surroundings and access to a grass yard, was associated with better ability to focus attention, measured by a standardized test generally used to assess attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
"Being outdoors—climbing trees, building secret places, collecting pinecones—hones a child's powers of observation, creative abilities, problem solving and cognitive skills," says Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Children & Nature Network. "One of the best things parents can do is open the door and let kids go outside."
Even observing nature from indoors seems to have benefits. Consider the findings from a classic study of people who had undergone gallbladder surgery in a Pennsylvania hospital (Science, April 1984). The patients recovered in rooms with views of either trees or a brick wall. Overall, patients with tree views went home more quickly and required fewer strong painkillers during their hospital stays.
A Human Need?
Some biologists believe human beings are born with an almost cellular need to bond with the natural world. "We're hardwired to enjoy nature," says Buzzell-Saltzman.
For people living in today's synthetic world, outdoor green activities may heal in a number of ways. Watching a chipmunk or listening to ocean waves may evoke happy memories of similar childhood experiences. In addition, exposure to the colors of leaves, the scents of flowers or the sounds of birds can stimulate the senses and provide a welcome break from car alarms, smog and other trappings of urban life.
What's more, the physical act of tending a garden or hiking along a trail can give you a healthy dose of exercise. Meanwhile, being out in the woods or on a beach provides an escape from stress. Even taking just a moment or two every day to appreciate something natural can help a person slow down and enjoy the time.
For children, the benefits can last a lifetime. "We need to make it a priority to structure unstructured outdoor time into children's everyday lives," says Charles.
Indeed, as a young boy Dan Shelton sensed the healing power of spending time in nature. "When you enjoy a smell or sound or view of something natural, you connect to something bigger than yourself," he says. Shelton's advice to others: "Respect yourself enough to save some quiet time every day and make that connection."
Bring the Outdoors In
You don't have to sleep in a tent or even step outside to connect with nature. It's more important for your health to get lower, more frequent doses of nature on a regular basis than to cram it all into an occasional outing, says Linda Buzzell-Saltzman, founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy. "Even something as simple as putting a plant in a room can be very healing." To bring more nature into your daily life, try these ideas.
- Adopt a pet. Research has shown that owning a pet—even fish—can lower blood pressure and bolster heart health.
- Decorate with houseplants, both at home and at the office. Grow fragrant herbs on a windowsill for cooking.
- Place a bird feeder where you can see it from a window. Then buy a birding guide and do some indoor bird-watching.
- Open the blinds or curtains, especially on windows that afford views of trees, grass or other natural features.
- Buy a small tabletop fountain. Then turn off the TV or music and listen only to the soothing sounds of trickling water.
- Hang photographic nature prints on the walls. Use a relaxing outdoor photo as your computer screen saver.
- Display beautiful rocks, seashells, pinecones, driftwood and other natural materials around the house.