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 more relevant than ever as increasing urbanization has made it harder for many people to take advantage of nature’s healing powers. More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, in fact, and that number is expected to approach 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 around the world.

“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 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 green space—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 non-pharmaceutical 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 windows had a greater sense of well-being than those whose rooms 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. 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 healthcare provider about how a regular fitness regimen in green space may help support your overall wellness and any treatment you might be 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.

Article sources open article sources

United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN. May 16, 2018.
Susan Abookire, BSEE, MD, MPH, FACP. Can forest therapy enhance health and well-being? Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. May 29, 2020
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Hansen MM, Jones R, Tocchini K. Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(8).
Antonelli M, Barbieri G, Donelli D. Effects of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on levels of cortisol as a stress biomarker: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Biometeorol. 2019;63(8):1117-1134.
Mao G-X, Cao Y-B, Lan X-G, et al. Therapeutic effect of forest bathing on human hypertension in the elderly. J Cardiol. 2012;60(6):495-502.
De la Fuente F, Saldías MA, Cubillos C, et al. Green Space Exposure Association with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, Physical Activity, and Obesity: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;18(1).
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Li Q, Morimoto K, Nakadai A, et al. Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2007;20(2 Suppl 2):3-8.
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Faber Taylor A, Kuo FEM. Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children’s Play Settings. Appl Psychol Health Well-Being. 2011;3(3):281-303.
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