We are leading increasingly urbanized lives. In fact, since 2014 more people live in urban regions than do in rural areas. By 2050 it is estimated that two thirds of the world’s population will be urban, rising to 86% in developed nations. How does living in an artificial environment affect our species? What on earth is a nature bath and why should we be taking one?
The Human Cost Of Urbanization
Life can seem like an endless cycle of home-commute-office-commute-home sometimes. We shuffle from building to building via bicycles, cars, trains, buses, ferries and many other means of conveyance. As much as possible we try to filter out the concrete, brick and steel environment by listening to music, the radio or by playing Candy Crush. For a treat we may head to a building to watch a movie, eat or have a drink or two. For a species that evolved in nature we have adapted extremely well to the artificial. Or have we?
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A growing body of research suggests that humans prefer to look at natural landscapes rather than urban ones. In fact, which landscape you frequently view can impact on your health and well-being. A review of over thirty studies about how natural landscapes affect people’s health found some startling results. People who have a view of a natural environment tend to suffer less from stress, anxiety, mental fatigue as well as fear, anger and aggression. Children who enjoy a school playground with a high degree of naturalness tended to take fewer sick days, were more attentive, were able to concentrate better and had better motor function than their peers in urban environments. Prisoners who view fields and trees tend to be less stressed and suffer fewer sick days. Hospital patients have less post-operative stays, take fewer pain killers and don’t have as many complications when they have a view of a natural environment as opposed to a brick wall.
Sometimes, even a mural of a natural environment can lower stress levels. Clearly, divorcing ourselves from nature is harming our health.
Unfortunately, nature poverty can impact on communities as well as individuals. A study in 2015 from Cardiff University found that communities felt more integrated and had lower crime rates when they had access to nature. It was much more important than the income, gender, age and education make-up of the communities.
Well planned urban environments incorporate nature in the form of tree-lined streets, community parks and public gardens. These improvements can make the urban landscape prettier. But can they offset the negative effects of city dwelling?
London is the most populated city in Europe and has a wide range of housing units, both with access to pockets of greenery and with out. A study in 2014 mapped anti-depressant prescription rates against the density of street trees in London boroughs. They found that higher density of street trees correlated with lower anti-depressant prescription rates. A Danish study found that access to a garden or green areas correlated with lower stress levels and obesity rates in urban populations.
So all is not lost.
A Forest or a Nature Bath. Or both?
Clearly having easy access to a local natural environment benefits our mental health. Further studies have found that totally immersing yourself can virtually reboot your brain.
Researchers from the University of Utah tested the creativity levels of 56 people before and after they went on a four-day nature hike. On average the hikers creativity levels increased by 50%.
Ditch the coffee! Research suggests connecting to nature is better way to get energized.Click To Tweet
In a study by the University of Rochester, over 500 students were exposed to five experiments. All participants reported feeling more energized after spending time in nature. In fact, just spending 20 minutes a day were enough to make people feel more alive.
“Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature,” Professor Richard Ryan, university of Rochester
Of course none of this comes as a surprise to the Japanese. As far back as 1982, Japanese people have engaged in a practice known as Shinrin Yoku, or Forest Bathing. Simply put, you can give your physical and mental health a boost by taking a short but unhurried trip to a forest. It’s a practice that is gaining followers all over the world. A small study even suggested that monthly forest baths enhanced the immune system and even led to the generation of anti-cancer proteins. Some of the research on forest bathing speculate that some of the positive health benefits are due to the inhalation of phytoncides, which are essential oils that come from wood.
So are forest baths the way to go? Well, essential wood oils aside, positive health effects of nature immersion are not confined to wooded areas. As long as there is some greenery to immerse yourself into, a nature bath is probably as good as a forest bath. Although it definitely would not do any harm to do both!
Nature and Exercise
Of course, there’s no reason your nature bath needs to be sedate to be relaxing. It can be as energetic as you want (although you might not notice it as much).
An analysis of ten UK studies which involved over 1200 people found that Green Exercise, or exercising in a natural environment “provides an important health service.” Every type of green environment was beneficial for short and long-term improvement in mood and self-esteem, even more so for people with mental health issues. Interestingly, the presence of water increased the effects, so water sports seem to be a good option as well.
One intriguing benefit of green exercise is that we tend to expend more energy but we don’t feel the exertion as much. So this allows us to work out harder and longer. Other benefits include lower stress levels, improved mood and self-esteem and getting rid of mental fatigue.
So it seems pretty clear that we should aim to get back to nature a lot more. As well as taking monthly trips to forests or the countryside, a short break in a park or garden can also help. In fact you could aim to combine three good habits into one by doing fifteen minutes exercise a day in a natural environment. Not only do you benefit from the exercise and the nature bath, but you’d also comply with the UK’s National Health Service’s recommended sun exposure to generate vitamin D. Deficiency in Vitamin D has been linked with depression so giving yourself a short sun bath may be as important as a nature bath. Of course, as sunlight levels vary across the globe, you should always check with your own country’s recommendations for sun exposure. Also don’t forget to discuss things with your doctor before embarking on a new exercise regime, but even walking or gardening will help.
This article expands on an earlier one, you can read the original here : Leaf Your Desk!
What is your favourite natural environment? Do you exercise outdoors? Let me know in the comments below!
UN – World Urbanization Prospects 2014 (PDF)
Science Direct – Research note: Urban street tree density and antidepressant prescription rates—A cross-sectional study in London, UK
Science Direct – Do green areas affect health? Results from a Danish survey on the use of green areas and health indicators
Scopus – The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise
Science Direct – Human responses to vegetation and landscapes
Science Direct – Health effects of viewing landscapes – Landscape types in environmental psychology
EurekAlert! – Contact with nature may mean more social cohesion, less crime
University of Rochester – Spending Time in Nature Makes People Feel More Alive, Study Shows
NCBI – Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins.
NCBI – Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function
NCBI – The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all
NCBI – What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis.
Science Direct – Vitamin D deficiency may play a role in depression
NHS – Sun and vitamin D advice given
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Tired and Feeling Lifeless? Indulge In A Nature Bath
Mounting research suggests real mental and physical benefits from immersing yourself in natural environments. Be it forest, countryside, mountain, lake or seaside, taking a nature bath is good for your health.