Spend Time in Nature for Better Health

By: Sterling House and Clare Bridge of Valparaiso Last Updated: August 21, 2012

NatureAs I write this I am engulfed in the beauty and sanctuary of my garden. Every moment spent here is a treasure to me. My 1 year old granddaughter explored the out of doors for the first time on an unseasonably warm day last March. For many days after that, her first act was to bring her parents their shoes in an effort to get them outdoors. What parent does not have a photo of their toddler standing at a glass door longingly peering out?

From our earliest days there is something inherent in us that is drawn to nature. Instincts like this fascinate me. They occur for good reason. Being outside in nature is good for us. Our grandmothers knew this. Fresh air and sunshine was a remedy for many things before modern medicine came along.

A study published in January 2010 looked at the health benefits of visiting nature parks in a popular practice in Japan called Shin rin-voku or “forest bathing.” 280 healthy subjects were monitored for physiologic stress responses while walking through a forest on one day and a city on another. The scientists found that being among plants lowered concentrations of cortisol (stress hormones), and lowered pulse rate and blood pressure among other things. According to study authors, “These results will contribute to the development of a research field dedicated to forest medicine, which may be used as a strategy for preventive medicine.” Forest medicine, what a lovely specialty!

Other studies have shown that visiting parks and forests raised the level of white blood cells and other beneficial immune factors including cancer fighting proteins. In one study women who spent time in the forest showed an increase in white blood cells that lasted up to a week. The study authors partially attributed this change to exposure to phytoncides emitted by the trees and forest plants.

Childhood experts in recent years have expressed concern about the lack of exposure to nature for kids these days. Many of us have noticed that there seem to be fewer kids playing outside in our neighborhoods. Programs have sprung up to get kids closer to nature. At the other end of the life spectrum is our senior population. Assisted living and health care residents often spend most of their time indoors. Programs to get them back to nature help improve health, reduce anxiety and provide joyful experiences.

As a wellness geek, research like this fills me with excitement. What a lovely, simple wellness practice. Perhaps in the future rather than the doctor prescribing anti-anxiety medications, the forest medicine specialist can write a prescription for a long walk in the woods.

In the meantime follow the toddler in your world, they know what is good for us-nature, laughter, play, naps and plenty of time with those you love.

Be Well on Purpose!