The health benefits of spending time in nature

People have long since sought peace of mind and a sense of well-being within nature, and recently much scientific research has been conducted to evaluate the positive impact that proximity to nature can have on human health. Many cultures have embraced the idea of nature and wellness, from Native Americans and their deep respect for nature and care of the land to Victorian’s who flocked to the mountains and mineral spas in search of good health. 

This article briefly notes the recent surge in popularity of Japanese and Norwegian aspects of establishing a nature connection, as well as noting scientific findings, and the importance of preserving green spaces for future generations. 

Fig 1. Photo by Victoria Protheroe
Fig 1. Photo by Victoria Protheroe

 Shinrin-Yoku is the art of what the Japanese call ‘the medicine of being in the forest’. Slowing down and connecting with the forest through the senses and embracing its atmosphere as a multi-sensory experience. Developed in the 1980’s, it became popular in health care and healing within Japanese medicine and is increasingly adopted by western culture as a positive means of de stressing. 

Japanese Shinto master Motohisa Yamakage writes in his book The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart “the Japanese people have loved and revered nature as a gift from Kami (a sacred power) since ancient times. We have felt that plants and animals, as well as mountains and rivers, have lived with us and have been deeply connected to us.” Shinto is a Japanese religion dating from the 8th century relating to rituals that seek to establish a connection with past and present, the worship of ancestors and nature spirits. This art of forest bathing has recently gained popularity within the western world. 

Fig 2. Photo by Victoria Protheroe
Fig 2. Photo by Victoria Protheroe

The word ‘hygge’ originated from a Norwegian word meaning ‘well-being’. For almost five hundred years, Denmark and Norway were one kingdom, until Denmark lost Norway in 1814. ‘Hygge’ appeared in written Danish for the first time in the early 1800’s, and the link between hygge and well-being or happiness may be no coincidence. Danes are some of the happiest people in Europe according to the European Social Survey. Hygge is the ethos of enjoying the good things in life as simply as possible. Many of its core principals relate to an appreciation of nature and natural elements, encouraging a regular connection with nature for the purpose of wellness and contentment. It is becoming an increasingly familiar term with many people seeking to simplify their daily lives and embrace a deeper connection with the natural world. Many of us who live in cities and spend a lot of time indoors, surrounded by technology, have lost a connection to nature and its benefits. 

Following the First World War, the extraordinary Ethel Haythornthwaite dedicated her life to the preservation of Sheffield’s rural areas. She was an early environmental campaigner and pioneer of the countryside movement. Following the death of her beloved husband, Captain Gallimore, she became extremely unwell, her family encouraged her to seek solace in the countryside that she loved so dearly, it is here that she regained a new sense of purpose, vowing to protect the Sheffield Peak District countryside. She helped to acquire land that later became Sheffield’s Green Belt, also aiding in Green Belt policy becoming part of government policy in 1955. Her love of nature and desire to protect the natural world for future generations has had a lasting impact. 

Fig 3 Photo by Victoria Protheroe
Fig 3 Photo by Victoria Protheroe

Many studies, not only in Japan, but also in Europe and the USA have confirmed the beneficial effects of a green environment on our health. Scientist say that spending at least 20 minutes a day in nature can lower stress hormone levels. While it has already been noted that nature can improve the mental health of city dwellers, a study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology, claims to be the first to establish the most effective dose. Dr May Carol Hunter, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and a lead author of this research, said : “our study shows that for the greatest pay-off, in terms of efficiency lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20-30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.” 

Scientist have demonstrated that blood pressure and heart rate drop, cognitive abilities improve, and creativity can be enhanced through time spent in nature. Trees, particularly coniferous ones, excrete volatile substances called phytoncides that have been shown to activate the immune system. 

Fig 4 Photo by Victoria Protheroe
Fig 4 Photo by Victoria Protheroe

With this in mind, it is little wonder that Virginia Woolf had her epiphany about what it means to be an artist whilst walking in the garden at St. Ives. 

Neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, details in his essay Why We Need Gardens: “As a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging.” 

Green spaces are a benefit to the environment filtering pollution and dust from the air, increasing oxygen levels and providing shade and lowering temperatures in urban spaces. Access to green spaces are associated with better health and reduced stress levels.  The challenges of urbanisation and the need to reserve adequate green space within urban planning is of growing importance to promote greener cities. We have become somewhat detached from the natural world with the rise of technology, industry and a growing population. Many innovative designs are increasingly being introduced such as New York’s roof top gardens, reimagining design to bring nature into architecture. 

The Green City is an international campaign to promote green infrastructure in a quick and easy to digest format. Countries from around Europe use Green Cities to collect and share research, knowledge, events and best practice to illustrate the benefits of installing green infrastructure in cities, towns and villages. The Green Cities campaign includes partners from the United Kingdom (led by the Green Infrastructure Partnership, which is run by the TCPA), Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Fig 5 Photo by Victoria Protheroe
Fig 5 Photo by Victoria Protheroe

The importance of instilling and nurturing a sense of connection to and appreciation for nature are also being incorporated more into the daily learning of young children. In Last Child in the Woods (Louv, 2005), the author coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the phenomenon of children’s disconnection from the natural world. By being outside and surrounded by nature, children experience an environment that stimulates all the senses. Outdoor play aids children’s intellectual, emotional, social and physical development, allowing them to be more physically active. Children are the future caretakers of the earth; thus an early appreciation of nature is essential to their wellness and future. 

 “Teaching children about the natural world should be treated as one of the most important events in their lives.” Thomas Berry. 

The writer and conservationist John Muir encapsulates beautifully the need to reconnect with nature; “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.” 

With an increasing awareness by the general public of environmental issues, and the growth in quantifiable studies noting the many health benefits of green spaces, one can only hope that future generations, raised with an appreciation of the natural world, can continue in the same vain as Ethel Haythornthwaite and her pioneering protection of the natural world. 


Cited and recommend further reading:

The Healing Art of Forest Bathing. Shinrin-Yoku O.L. Delorie, Quarto Press, 2018

The Little Book of Hygge, The Danish Way to Live Well M. Wiking, Penguin Life, 2016

The I. Newspaper article ‘At Least 20 minutes a day in nature cuts stress’ Andy Johnson, 4/4/2019 

The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart.  Kodansha America, Inc, 2012. M. Yamakage 

New York Times, April 2019 Why We Need Gardens.  O. Sacks

Anywhere that is Wild. Yosemite Conservancy, 2018. John Muir 

With Nature in Mind, A. McGeeney, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2016

Last Child in the Woods, Louv, 2015 

About Victoria Protheroe 10 Articles
With a lifelong love of nature and wildlife and a Master’s degree in research, Victoria Protheroe enjoys spending her free time combining these interests to explore new areas of wildlife research and conservation. Her current area of interest is with reptile care, specifically snake husbandry.

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