The pandemic forced many people to spend more time indoors and engaged in technology. Since the start of the pandemic, the average American spent 90 percent of their time indoors. With all this time indoors, Americans spent 7 hours and 50 minutes per day consuming media alone. Now think about how much time you spend on your computer working from home, taking classes, or paying the bills online.
With more time spent indoors and increased time spent in front of a screen, it’s no wonder there’s been a significant increase in reports of mental health issues. During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. That’s up 30% from 2019. In addition to negative impacts on mental health, many reported difficulty sleeping or eating, increased consumption of alcohol or other substances, and worsening of chronic conditions due to stress.
Now that restrictions have loosened, it’s time to put down the phone, close the laptop screen, and take a step outside for a low-cost and effective way to reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, regulate metabolism and improve overall health.
A study of 20,000 people found that those who spent at least 120 minutes per week outside in green or blue spaces, like parks, the ocean, or other natural environments, were significantly more likely to report better physical health and mental well-being than those who don’t.
That’s only 17 minutes a day, outside for substantial cognitive, mental, and physical health benefits.
What are the benefits of being in nature?
“Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive function,” said Richard Louv, a San Diego journalist who coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder. Spending time in nature has been proven to have the following health benefits:
- Improves overall mood
- Feelings of happiness, calm, and empathy
- Brings a sense of balance
- Ignites inspiration
- Improves ability to pay attention and concentrate
- Minimizes risk of psychiatric disorders
- Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
- Reduces stress
- Decreases anxiety
Why is being in nature beneficial?
Spending time in nature can act as a buffer for our brains, improving cognitive function. Cognition is the ability to think, learn, problem solves, reason, remember and make decisions. It’s an important part of performing everyday tasks.
Research has shown that cognitive tasks that require memory, decision making, and problem-solving improve the most after exposure to nature, with some improvements in the ability to focus.
While the reasoning behind why nature improves cognitive function is still unknown, one working theory is the attention restoration theory (ART), which suggests that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by spending time in or looking at nature. The brain can only focus on a specific stimulus or test for so long, going beyond your brain’s natural capacity to focus results in attention fatigue. ART proposes that spending time in natural environments encourages more effortless brain function, giving it the chance to recover its attention capacity.
Another theory as to why nature has cognitive benefits is the biophilia hypothesis (BET). The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other life forms. Evidence shows that people are attracted to nature, which is diverse in shapes, colors, and life, like plants and animals. Looking back hundreds and thousands of years, our ancestors were immersed in nature and spent nearly all of their time outdoors so even today humans have a natural pull to be in nature.
Time spent outdoors in sunlight can attribute to the positive benefits of nature. Sunlight is a great source of vitamin D, a vital nutrient that is necessary for biological processes like supporting healthy bones, reducing inflammation, and supporting the immune system. Sunlight also increases the body’s serotonin levels, which is associated with boosting mood, increasing feelings of calm, and improving focus.
Way to get outdoors
To reap the benefits of nature, it’s important to be intentional about spending time outdoors. With lots of activities and busy schedules, it can be challenging to find time to be in nature and when you do have the time, you may not feel like it. Here are seven tips to help you start spending more time in nature even when you don’t think you have the time or feel like it:
- Schedule it
Many of us live by our calendars, so be intentional about outdoor time by putting it in your calendar. Maybe the best time is at the beginning of the day, afternoon lunch break, or in the evening after dinner. Whatever time works best for you, make sure to pencil it in.
- Think small
You don’t need to plan an entire day outdoors to get all the benefits. Remember, just 17 minutes a day, or 120 minutes per week, is enough to see improvements in your health. Start small and enjoy nature in bursts. Once you’ve developed the daily habit, gradually increase the amount of time spent outdoors.
- Get a Nature Buddy
The American Society of Training and Development found that people are 65 percent more likely to meet a goal after committing to another person. Additionally, chances of success increase to 95 percent when they have ongoing meetings with them. Not only are you more likely to meet your goal of spending more time in nature, but being with a friend, family member or group of people can help reduce feelings of isolation that are common with health issues.
- Be prepared
If you want to walk outside in your neighborhood, go to the beach or hit the park, make sure you have what you need to be comfortable, like the right shoes, sunscreen, and water. If you aren’t prepared, you may end up feeling more stressed than relaxed.
- Do what you enjoy
Being in nature means getting outdoors and experiencing different sights, sounds, and sensations. There are no rules when it comes to how you experience nature to improve your health. Discover what you find relaxing and participate in that. Biking, swimming, walking, gardening, or even just sitting outside are all great ways to expose yourself to nature.
- Do research
It can be more inspiring to spend time in nature if it’s somewhere you’ve never been before. Look in your area to find a new place to visit and explore.
- Hold space
Be careful not to fill every moment of your time in nature. Planning activities for when you arrive at your destination is great, and remember to hold space for exploration, free time, and even random moments of awe and reflection. Practicing mindfulness can help deepen, your experience in nature and further reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
Taking the next steps
Being in nature has been proven to have a significant positive impact on physical, mental, and emotional health. Challenge yourself to start forming the daily habit of spending time in nature so you can reap the benefits nature has to offer.
And even if you’ve made spending time in nature part of your daily routine and enlisted a nature buddy, dealing with chronic illness can still be hard. Know that no matter what you are going through, you are not alone. PatientsLikeMe is a community for you to connect, share and collaborate with other people who have the same struggles you do. Join the conversation at PLM!