The Immense Healing Powers of Mother Nature
Want to feel better? Go outside.
Illustration by Vlad Alvarez
The science is new. The studies aren’t that comprehensive and complete. But the evidence is growing every year. So is the common sense.
Spending as much time as possible in the company of nature has tremendous physiological and psychological benefits. So, get outside and look around. Move among the trees and creatures. Maybe eat some dirt.
“A lot of people talk about the microflora in our guts and the need for healthy bacteria there,” says Dr. Alexys Daut, a physician with Bayhealth Family Medicine in Smyrna. “Getting a little dirt under your fingernails helps the stomach.”
Daut isn’t encouraging people to start eating mud pies, but there can be no disputing the mounting research that people who spend more time outdoors improve their health and provide opportunities for stress reduction, escape from life’s technological overload and realize greater happiness. The better news is that it doesn’t cost anything to go outside.
It’s even more important for children to have access to life under the sun and clouds. Adults need the exposure to keep their engines humming, but kids have developmental needs that are served best by being part of nature’s majesty. Learning how to run, negotiating different terrains, developing respect for potentially harmful entities and navigating social settings that arise from group play are vital for growing bodies.
The upshot? Everybody wins. And even those who are part of the backlash that criticizes the participation trophy society can agree that having more healthy people helps society function more effectively, not to mention cheaply, through smaller societal health costs.
“The benefits are far and wide,” says Kate DuPont Phillips, a population health specialist with Nemours’ Division of Health and Prevention Services. “Think about it as a holistic approach to health and development.”
Daut did a fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she met Dr. Sara Warber, who became a mentor. Dr. Warber retired recently but not before she did Fulbright scholarship work at The European Centre for Environment and Human Health on the benefits of nature. The results provided further proof that people who are outside more often are healthier.
“It increases your overall body health,” says Dr. Ray Carter, a primary care physician for Christiana Care’s Concord Center. “There are a number of mental or behavioral benefits, as well as physical benefits.”
There may be nobody in the country who knows more about how being outside can provide benefits for people than author Richard Louv. In 2005, he wrote “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” which makes a strong case for people—especially youngsters—to get outside and experience nature in large bursts. By aggregating material and research across many different disciplines, Louv argued that obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and depression are headed off or mitigated when children are exposed to nature in consistent doses. His term “nature-deficit disorder” addresses individual health but also social constructs and serves as a call for people to get their kids and themselves outside.
His two subsequent books, “The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life” continue these themes and have served as calls to action for physicians, psychologists and educators who are looking for ways to help improve physical and mental health of individuals but also to create more stable, thriving communities.
“There is a restorative effect,” Phillips says. “We can better understand our space in the world and how we fit into the bigger picture.”
The health benefits of nature
It has long been believed that escaping the office or house and heading into the outdoors has had a calming effect. Daut reports there is actual medical evidence now that proves it. Those who spent more time in nature had lower blood pressure and an improvement in their heart rates than those who spent more time indoors. Continued exposure also had a direct impact on stress reduction, through the regulation in cortisol production. The body must produce cortisol to help us during stressful situations, but too much of it is not good. Exposure to a variety of natural experiences allows for levels to drop and for our adrenal glands to rest.
Some studies have also provided a link between outdoor activity and reductions in the levels of the hemoglobin A1c, which is an indicator of insulin production. The lower the A1c reading, the less likely someone is for being diabetic. According to Daut, exposure to nature can help keep A1c under control. It isn’t a completely preventative measure, but it does have benefits and can decrease glucose levels in the blood.
Carter says that being outside helps trigger the circadian rhythms that are normally in place. Being exposed more to sunlight helps your body establish a sturdy light-dark relationship. That allows for some significant benefits.
“Your body chemistry depends on that [relationship],” Carter says. “There is a release of hormones tied to that.”
Sunshine also brings Vitamin D, which while available in foods like fish and eggs, is best consumed directly outdoors. It helps the body absorb calcium, which promotes good bone health, something particularly important for post-menopausal women who are trying to ward off osteoporosis.
Although the data from studies about the actual benefits of being outside remain sparse, particularly when compared to other areas of medical research, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t believe that nature has the capacity to help us psychologically.
Daut speaks about the Southeast Asian cultures that engage in “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing,” a practice that encourages people to immerse themselves in nature as much as possible, the better to receive the restorative and rehabilitative physical benefits of the natural world but also increase mental and emotional vigor.
“When you go out in a forest and see a variety of trees versus the same trees again and again, you gain more energy,” Daut says. “It also helps us sleep better.”
Carter says that he has seen studies that show people who don’t get enough sunlight have trouble with inattention, seasonal mood disorder and depression. Seeing things that we don’t normally encounter in an office, car or our bedroom, coupled with significant doses of fresh air can help recharge our minds, just as it helps our metabolisms.
Phillips says that the act of taking time to be in nature removes us from our busy lives and can help eliminate anxiety from our lives. Further, it has the broader benefit of helping neighborhoods and communities thrive. Creating living areas with more green spaces leads people to spend more time outside and with others in settings that aren’t confined and dreary. That can lead to the building of relationships that can be supportive and cathartic.
“There is quite a bit of energy being generated around this idea,” Phillips says. “Green spaces are great for health but also for creating vibrant, economically stable, thriving communities.”
There can be no disputing the fact that children benefit greatly from being outside, especially at a time when the lure of screens of all kinds is greater than ever. Now, adults have to beg them to do what youngsters had been yearning to do for centuries but recently have found less attractive than perching in front of a screen:
In an interesting bit of irony, the airwaves are filled with pleas for children to spend an hour outside every day, often quiet voices amidst the din of programming, gaming and surfing options available to kids. The NFL has even joined the fray, with its “Play 60” campaign that tries to show kids that getting outside and running around is actually fun.
At Christiana Care, the “Five-Two-One-Almost None” program encourages children to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, spend no more than two hours in front of a screen, get one hour of physical activity a day—preferably outside—and “almost none” sugared drinks every day. Carter encourages adults to set a positive example and to partake in the activity portion of the program. According to Phillips, there is also an important social component of nature activity for a child that extends beyond the fresh air-good health portion.
“In terms of child development, it’s crucial to have access to fresh air,” Phillips says. “It helps kids negotiate friendships and develop social skills. They also understand the world and their place in the world.”
The Pilot School’s new Wilmington campus is a perfect example of what the outdoors can do for children. The 50-acre property includes plenty of wooded areas for students to explore, lawns for spontaneous play and fields for structured sporting activities. There is a rocky area on which students climb—and sometimes fall—at recess, a rooftop garden and the 2,000 acres of Brandywine Creek State Park right next door. If Louv wants a perfect partner for his message, all he must do is call Pilot principal Kathy Craven, who believes children are “more available to learn after spending time outside.”
“Young brains must have a sensory component outside,” Craven says. “Take a walk. Do some pushups against the wall outside. You have to prime the brain with physical activity.”
And then reap the benefits.