For 5 million years, humans depended on nature for everything, including food, shelter, and the regulation of sleep cycles. Nature guided us in a very direct way. But in the past thousand years, that started shifting.
In modern life we no longer have direct physical contact with the earth. Many of us could go months or even years without setting a foot in nature. Could this be a contributor to the rising health problems we face today?
The vast majority of evidence suggests we can be happier, healthier, and smarter if we weave more nature back into our lives. Leading naturalist Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle, agrees. There has been a surge in studies that strongly suggest a link between the outside and your insides, and that the best mind-body medicine may lie right beyond your front door.
Humans are biophilic—meaning we have an innate need to connect with nature and other forms of life. This relative sudden absence of nature from our lives could throw our well-being way way off. In fact, the modern way of living, complete with loads of indoor time, has given rise to what Louv has coined "nature-deficit disorder," a condition that may come with adverse health effects.
One study found that the farther you live from green space, the likelier you are to be in poor health. Other research suggests that rising rates of allergies and autoimmune disorders might be caused, in part, by less exposure to the healthy bacteria found in nature. Science has even linked reduced exposure to nature to higher risk for obesity, cancer, heart disease, anxiety, and depression.
Women especially seem to be suffering from nature-deficit disorder. A survey by Women's Health Magazine, found those who felt stressed were more likely than non-frazzled women to spend a free day curled up on the couch. The picture gets worse: when those stressed women actively try to relax: 54 percent plunk themselves in front of the TV, 44 percent eat, and 31 percent have a glass of wine; (only 26 percent head out for a walk in the park).
Raise your hand if that sounds like you.
In Japan scientists are measuring the physical effects of "forest bathing. One study found that people's blood pressure, resting heart rate, and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) were all significantly lower after a 15-minute nature walk compared with a 15-minute city walk. Another experiment found a 37 percent spike in the number of women's natural killer cells—the backbone of the immune system—after they spent a few hours in the woods.
Where, exactly, the benefits are coming from is still unclear. What is clear is that Vitamin N can also have profound effects on your brain. "Modern multitasking overtaxes brain areas that are involved in suppressing distractions, thinking creatively, and developing a sense of identity," says David Strayer, Ph.D., a neural scientist at the University of Utah. "Getting out into nature allows those parts of the brain to restore and replenish themselves."
Strayer recently co-led a study that found people were 50 percent more creative after spending four days backpacking in nature. Separate research shows that people's memory power and attention span rose significantly after an hour-long walk in an arboretum.
Soaking in Vitamin N may also be the easiest mood lift ever: When people took hour-long walks in a park versus a mall, 90 percent of them reported higher self-esteem, and 71 percent said they felt less depressed, per research at the University of Essex in the U.K. (Nearly half the mall rats reported feeling worse about themselves.) The same researchers found it's not just "green" outings that do the trick: "Blue-green" exposure—i.e., time spent near rivers, lakes, or oceans—had the most positive emotional effects.
Kind of makes you want to get outside, like, immediately. Right?
The Fresh Air Rx
Some doctors find the data so compelling that they're writing "nature prescriptions" to help prevent and treat conditions ranging from heart disease to diabetes to depression. Daphne Miller, M.D., a family physician in San Francisco, hands her patients park maps with instructions on which trails to take and whether to walk, run, or just sit outside. "Nature therapy can be a powerful intervention," she says. "People are more likely to stick to it, it's readily available anywhere, and it's free."
Even if your M.D. isn't writing you scripts for two loops around the lake, you should still get on board with nature therapy.
The truth is, you don't even need to move much to score a healthy dose of vitamin N, even small doses of "vitamin N" (as in nature) are a powerful protector of your body and mind. Those "forest bathing" studies found the same stress-level, heart-rate, and blood-pressure reductions in people who spent 15 minutes just sitting in a chair in the woods. Other research shows that five minutes in any kind of natural setting is enough to boost your mood.
Could this research be the death of the standing desk? Wouldn't a brisk lunch-break walk be more beneficial than simply standing all day? Is this why only 50% of gym-membership holders actually utilize their gym access? Is this why treadmills feel like modern day torture devices? Well that's not what they researched but I think it's safe to say, yes.
So yeah, go outside.