Go Outside!

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A quick walk outside is great for your health

It’s something simple, but it can make a huge difference.   

There is growing evidence that having a ‘nature break’ is good for our physical, mental, and social health. Physically, contact with nature improves our immune system function, lowers our blood pressure, and speeds recovery from surgery. And nature is also good for our mental health, helping us cope with stress, improving our mood, and even making us more generous. Perhaps most important for students, time in nature improves our attention and creative problem-solving. Even being able to view vegetation through the windows in our homes and offices improves children’s school and adults’ work performance. (In all of these studies, the effects of nature are contrasted with comparable experiences in urban settings, controlling for things like the amount of exercise participants receive.)

Although actually being outside is best, even looking at pictures of outdoor scenes can improve our health and cognitive abilities. In the studies mentioned above, ‘contact with nature’ is defined in a variety of ways: looking at nature scenes, having plants in the room, hiking in urban green spaces, spending four days in an Outward Bound trip. In these studies, spending more time and being more engaged with our nature experiences results in larger effects, but even spending 10 minutes looking at pictures has noticeable benefits. So improving our physical and mental health through contact with nature can be very quick and easy compared to strategies like regular exercise, good nutrition, and eight hours of sleep. And, even better, the benefits seem to be lasting. For example, one research team found that improved immune cell function after a walk through a forest was still evident after a week.

For some of these studies, the benefits of nature are measured using subjective reports, but there are also a wide range of objective measurements including physiological measures (number and activity of immune cells, blood pressure), standardized cognitive tests, and records such as mortality rates and length of hospital stays. This means that nature contact has real effects on our bodies, and that these effects are noticeable both to ourselves and others. But, despite the fact that we seem to notice these positive effects, we apparently don’t realize that contact with nature causes them.

Recently, I asked each of 362 people (182 U of R students and 180 Regina community residents) to list 3 things they could do in the next 6 months to improve their well-being.

The results of the survey indicate that most people know that regular exercise and good nutrition are beneficial to our health.  But very few mentioned the simplest action – spending time in natural settings. Research hasn’t yet compared the benefits of these different activities for health and well-being, and there is no doubt that practices such as maintaining good nutrition, exercise, and sleep are very good for us. But, for a quick and widely effective pick-me-up we can’t do much better than taking a short walk in the park. Or, if it happens to be -30° C when you need restoration, even just looking out the window at the beautiful snow-covered trees can help.

Katherine Arbuthnott
Assistant Dean, Psychology

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