New science shows us that getting outside can help boost immunity, mood, cardiovascular, and so much more! Plus, time outside in every season helps you build a better microbiome.
Nature’s RDA for Healing
Don’t you feel better after being outdoors? Nature walking, forest bathing, hiking, and just being in the wilderness or your neighborhood park have been shown to offer numerous health and psychological benefits. But how much time is needed in the woods to reap the rewards, and when is the best time to get into nature?
In a 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers concluded that the airborne bacteria we breathe every day shift dramatically from one season to the next. The air around freshwater, cropland, and urban environments had more abundant bacteria in summer, while marine and forest environments had more abundant bacteria in winter.
Why is this important? While most of us more readily flock to the wilderness in the summer, the science tells us that breathing winter air in a forest may be just as beneficial.
The microbes we breathe in natural environments are supporting seasonal inoculation of our guts with the right microbes for the right season.
The takeaway: Getting into nature as much as possible will benefit your gut health, and in turn your mood, immunity, and so much more!
How Much Time Do We Need in Nature?
The science on how much time in nature is beneficial for our microbiomes is evolving.
In a 2019 study published in Scientific Reports, researchers determined that we need two hours a week minimum outside for getting nature’s health benefits.
Those who spent more than 120 minutes or more in nature were significantly more likely to report good health and psychological wellbeing than those who don’t visit nature as much. So, a two-hour hike each weekend may be the threshold for nature’s medicinal effects, but the study also found the same benefits if nature walks are broken into smaller pieces throughout the week.
In a 2020 Cornell University study on college students, published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found that the amount of time needed in nature to experience health benefits was much less. Researchers concluded that as little as 10 minutes a day sitting or walking by a tree, a flower planter, or in the woods delivered measurable changes in mental health, including reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Spending between 10 to 50 minutes outside, in natural spaces, was the most effective in improving mood, focus, and physiological markers, like blood pressure and heart rate. After 50 minutes of being in nature, the benefits plateaued.
An even more recent study, a meta analysis of 50 articles on nature therapy published this year in the journal Population Health, shows that just gardening or exercising outside in nature for 20 to 90 minutes improves mood, reduces anxiety, and boosts positive emotions.
For those who can’t get outside as much, there is still hope! In a 2018 study, published in the journal Environmental Research, researchers collected data from more than 140 studies and more than 290 million adults from all over the world and measured their health and the amount of exposure to greenspace they had. Across the board, populations with more access to greenspace were more likely to report good overall health while also showing a lower risk of premature death, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, pre-term births, stress, and high blood pressure.
In a more recent study, published this year in the journal Nature Sustainability, researchers reported similar benefits in children who were more regularly exposed to woodlands. In this study, more than 3,500 kids from ages 9 to 15 were evaluated for cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues and their access to woodlands. Living in proximity to woodlands was linked to better cognitive development and a whopping 16 percent lower risk of emotional or behavioral problems.
Benefits of Nature
According to research, the benefits of nature are broad, including:
- Improved immune system function through an increase in natural killer cells
- Improved cardiovascular health, including an decrease in the risk for hypertension and coronary artery disease
- Boosted respiratory system to help ward off allergies and respiratory disease
- Decreased mood disorders, depression, anxiety, and stress
- Enhanced mental relaxation, and reduced symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Feelings of awe and increased gratitude and selflessness
Fight Stress with Trees
Studies find that being in nature has a specific effect on our fight-or-flight nervous system. In a meta analysis of 971 studies on forest bathing, only two did not show lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone). All the rest showed a significant reduction in stress hormone, which is linked to most age-related and degenerative health concerns.
In another review of some 52 studies, scientific data link being in nature to changes in brainwave activity, autonomic nervous system stress, endocrine (hormonal) activity, immune health, and mood, which leads researchers to conclude that nature therapy, as it is called in the West, will play an increasingly important role in preventative medicine, stress reduction, and technostress in the future.
Ayurvedic Forest Bathing
In the 1980s, Japan popularized the practice of shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, which is the practice of immersing oneself in nature by mindfully using all five senses. In Ayurveda, opening your senses as a mindfulness practice is called pratyahara.
Stop, listen, touch, taste, smell, and see the beauty of the wilderness. Take a moment and feel through your senses.
Instead of only using your senses outwardly, use them as avenues of consciousness: imagine breathing in through each sense and feeling what you notice in your heart. Listen to the sounds of nature in your heart. Smell, see, and touch nature, bringing the awareness of each sense to your heart.
Or just meditate in your local park or the forest and immerse your mind in the silence of nature. Meditation has been shown to positively express our genes—something we evolved to do from our deep connection to nature.
Based on research, nature has become a critical aspect of preventive healthcare and healing in Japanese medicine.
Studies suggest that humans have spent 99.99 percent of our time on Earth living in a natural environment, which we have clearly adapted to.
So get outside and enjoy!