Researching the nature effect
Studies — and studies of studies — support what many health care professionals, scientists, outdoors people and others believe: Time in nature is good for our overall well-being. A random glance at some research:
Water work: A health project conducted for National University of Ireland Galway centers on the healing powers of green spaces and even blue (water) spaces. Water heals, researchers said. “It’s visually stimulating, with a thousand shades of constantly moving blue, and wave-exposed coastlines release negative ions believed to alter our biochemistry, lowering our cortisol and lighting up our mood.” Easkey Britton, a scientist and researcher, spoke of making people more “ocean-literate.” She added: “Through this understanding there is empathy and connection, and that’s how we overcome the challenges we seems to face.”
Green space: A team representing the University of East Anglia in England analyzed data in 143 studies on the relationship of green space and health. The team’s report in “Environmental Research” in July validated the work: Populations exposed to green spaces have reduced risk of type II diabetes, heart disease, stress and other maladies. “Although we looked at a large body of research on the relationship … we don’t know exactly what causes this relationship,” said the study’s author, Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett. Still, exposure to the variety of bacteria in natural areas appears to boost the immune system and reduce inflammation.
Forest bathing: The idea of “forest bathing” is a product of Japan, and has become trendy in the United States in recent years. Called shinrin-yoku in Japanese, forest bathing gets to the therapeutic value of spending long periods of time in the forest. The nature therapy shows it mitigates stress, a pivot point for all sorts of physical ailments from high blood pressure to diabetes. One 2007 study in Japan found that time in nature boosts the immune system, too. A group of men ages 37-55 who walked in the woods showed a significant increase in their natural killer cell activity and the number of those cells, which can kill tumors and virus-infected cells. The results for women were positive, too. A three-day trip to forest areas elevated killer cell activity in a women’s group. The positive effect lasted for more than seven days, similar to the findings among the men.
Creativity: Profiled in the bestselling book “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative,” researcher David Strayer of the University of Utah found that a group of Outward Bound participants performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking.
Brain boost: A study involving Stanford and Michigan universities in 2013 found a walk in nature by people suffering from major depression lifted their mood and improved their memory. A conclusion was that incorporating nearby nature into cities may counteract some of the adverse effects of the urban environment.
Wonderment: Published in “Psychological Science” in 2013, a Stanford University study dug into the experience of “awe,” defined as “an overwhelming feeling or reverence, admiration, fear or wonder produced by that which is grand and sublime.” Researchers concluded that awe expands people’s perception of time, bolster feelings of well-being and causes people to behave more altruistically and to be less attached to material things.
Attention deficit: A 2009 study from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, showed that children with attention deficit disorder concentrated better after a walk in the park than after a stroll in an urban area. Such doses of nature, the study concluded, might serve as a safe, inexpensive tool in managing the brain disorder.