5 Surprising Ways Nature Can Improve Your Health

5 Surprising Ways Nature Can Improve Your Health

A simple walk in the woods may help you get and stay well.

Improving your health may be as easy as a walk in the park.

Researchers across the globe have been looking closely at how being surrounded by plants, trees, and flowers can help humans thrive. Interest in this topic is spiking as increasing urbanization has made it harder than ever for desk-bound men and women to take advantage of nature’s healing powers. Right now, in fact, about half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050.

It’s in this context that trends such as “forest bathing”—a Japanese practice of walking meditatively in the woods, also known as “forest therapy”—have found enthusiastic followers on this side of the Pacific, as well.

“Taking walks outside in nature is good for both your physical and mental health,” says Jeff Sarata, DO, an emergency medicine specialist at Fairview Park Hospital in Dublin, Georgia. Dr. Sarata points out that getting your muscles moving in a green setting can positively affect many parts of your body, from your heart to your lungs to your state of mind.

“When you’re walking or hiking in a natural setting like a forest, park, or even a greenhouse,” he explains, “you’re not only getting physical exercise, which provides the number one benefit. You’re also surrounded by the organisms that produce the oxygen your body needs. No one ever feels worse after walking in nature!”

Here are several ways your body can feel a whole lot better with a simple trek through the woods:

It relaxes you deeply
“When you go for a walk in nature, rather than on a city street, you don’t have cars honking and people talking on their cell phones around you,” says Sarata. In fact, reviews of research published in 2016 and 2017 in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggest that leaving the techno world behind to walk and breathe in a natural environment stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts you in a state of relaxation. Forest bathing has also been shown to lower levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol.

It can improve your cardiovascular health
That slower pace and sense of peacefulness achieved by communing with nature helps slow down your heart rate and may even ease high blood pressure. One small study published in 2012 in Journal of Cardiology found that in elderly patients with hypertension, a calming seven-day sojourn in the forest led to a significant decrease in blood pressure, especially when compared to adults who spent the same time in an urban setting.

Exposure to greenspace—which can include undeveloped landscapes as well as urban parks—is also associated with decreased risks of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

It may boost your immune system
One small but intriguing study out of Japan looked at the role forest therapy played in the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, which are crucial to fighting off diseases, including cancer. After three days on a forest retreat compared to days spent at the office, the men in the study saw increased levels of NK cells in their blood.

A follow-up study compared the effects of a three-day forest trip to an urban sight-seeing visit, finding that forest bathers experienced significant increases in NK activity while the city trippers did not. Although the studies suggest that walking in nature may help bolster immunity, more research will help determine any long-term effects on health.

It could help children with attention issues
Parents of children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may find nonpharmaceutical relief right outside their front door. In a national survey conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, parents indicated that their children’s ADHD symptoms—such as impulsivity and inattention—were reduced after the kids were allowed to play in green settings, as opposed to indoors or in outdoor “built” spaces. Experts theorize that spending time in nature engages the mind effortlessly and easily, providing children with a break from having to deliberately focus their attention, therefore freeing up their energy to focus again when needed.

Just the sight of nature may help you heal
Surprisingly, even just resting your eyes on a green view may have the power to aid healing. One study published in 2011 in the journal Clinical Rehabilitation found that coronary patients in a physical rehab facility who had an unobstructed view of nature from their window had a greater sense of well-being than those whose room had a view of buildings.  

Getting into nature
While these potential benefits are compelling, the body of research into the health benefits of nature is still young, and researchers don’t yet have the kind of long-term studies to demonstrate that access to nature yields real health outcomes. Meanwhile, remember that a walk in the forest is no substitute for the care of a medical professional, particularly if you have ongoing conditions. Check with your doctor about how a regular fitness regimen in green space may help support the treatment you’re receiving.

Meanwhile, research has also shed light on the possible mental health benefits of walking in nature—including improved mood, fewer negative thoughts, and lower levels of stress—all of which may also positively influence your physical well-being. When your five senses are fully immersed in the natural world, the body’s stress response is eased, which is akin to the type of benefit derived from mindfulness practices and meditation.

So, next time you have a choice between turning on the TV or going for a walk in the local park—or even down a tree-lined street—drop the remote and lace up your sneakers. Your mind and body may thank you for it.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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