The sun is shining bright, warming your skin. A calm breeze kisses the back of your neck, you can feel the soft blades of grass tickle in between your toes, sending shivers up your spine. In moments like these, it's nearly impossible not to smile. There is something about being exposed to nature that brings about an undeniably strong feeling of joy. There's no question that being outdoors has a positive effect on a person's mood, especially here in the midwest, where the brutal cold of our long winters forces its inhabitants to enjoy every bit of warm weather our climate has to offer.
But just how effective is nature on mental health? New research shows that exposure to grass, flowers, trees, and wild animals may be a method for coping with anxiety and depression. What’s defined as ecotherapy - the idea of connecting with nature as a mechanism for a positive impact on your well being - isn’t a new idea, rather is one that has been around since the early 80’s. In 1984, Edward O. Wilson published a book, Biophilia, explaining his theory that our affiliation with nature is rooted in our biology and genetics. During the same time period, Japanese doctors began prescribing “forest bathing” as a method for optimal health. Up until now, there hasn’t been much factual based evidence to back up these theories.
In April of 2016, a team at Harvard University conducted a study to show the relationship between exposure to nature and mortality rates. Out of the 100,000 female nurses studied over an 8 year period, they found that those living in the greenest areas had a 12% lower mortality rate compared to those that lived in the most industrial areas (vice.com). In an effort to explain these findings, the Harvard team collected information on diagnosed depression and use of antidepressant medication among the women they studied. They discovered that the nurses who were exposed to more green areas had lower levels of depression and improved mental health, which explained nearly 30% of the benefit from living near nature vs. in more built out and industrial areas.
These results proved Wilson’s theory of biophilia to be true, according to Peter James the organizer of the Harvard study. “There’s a direct cognitive benefit and restorative quality of being in nature, that we’ve evolved in nature and enjoy being in nature,” says James, who goes on to explain that moving out of the city into the countryside isn’t the answer. With 84% of Americas living in urban areas, the study suggests that even the little things, such as exposure to tree-lined streets, or public parks, can have a significant benefit for mental health (vice.com)
This study isn’t the only research that Harvard has conducted to prove a correlation between nature and mental health. In 2010, they published findings from various studies that showed an outdoor lifestyle will lead to more exercise, increased levels of vitamin D, improved concentration, quicker healing times, and higher self-esteem, all of which lead to overall higher levels of happiness and improved mental health.
So what does all of this mean for you? Its simple: get outside as much as possible. With mental health-related illnesses on the rise, we should make regular attempts to seek out the healing abilities that nature has to offer. it is important that we not only take care of our physical bodies but of our minds as well.
While the weather still allows it, we encourage you to #StepOutside, soak up sun, and enjoy what mother nature has to offer. Go for a run, lay out at the beach, take a hike through the forest, anything activity that's an excuse to get out of the concrete jungle and into the great outdoors. Do this, and your mental health will thank you.