Why Time in Nature is the Best Medicine
Health Mastery | Edition Nº4
How have you been feeling lately? A little sluggish, stressed out, or perhaps exhausted? If you’ve felt this way or had similar feelings, spending time in nature could be the answer.
When thinking about how you’re feeling, ask yourself another question:
“How much time have I spent in nature lately?”
We know being out in nature is good for us, but there’s a closer link between happiness and time in nature than we think. “The modern way we live has changed radically from life in the savanna, but our brains have mostly stayed the same”, says Heart.org. They also talk about how the connection between humans and nature runs deep, and if we don’t nourish this bond, it’ll hurt us in different ways.
A 2014 meta-analysis looked into the relationship between our connectedness with nature and happiness. They found connecting with nature can improve our mood, cognition and health. And that time in nature can improve the quality of our social connections—which is considered a commodity found in the lives of very happy people by another study.
However, it’s become clear that children spend less time in natural environments than they did and that the rising detachment from our environment may negatively impact our emotional well-being and overall happiness.
To truly understand what nature can do for you, let’s look at those who get the most out of it.
Okinawans are arguably the happiest people on the planet.
They are a part of the Blue Zone population, which comprises five places where natives live long, healthy and happy lives, with amazingly low rates of chronic disease and high longevity. The other places are:
Loma Linda, California
Nicoya, Costa Rica
Research in 2004 helps us understand why Okinawa has high acclaim in its longevity, being once called “the land of the immortals”. According to Blue Zones, the Japanese prefecture has less cancer, heart disease (the biggest global killer) and dementia than Americans, and women there live longer than any other.
They savour nature-rich lifestyles with fewer free radicals in their blood (byproducts of normal cell functions that may cause proteins and other molecules not to work correctly). This may be due to their diet, low stress, smoking, alcohol and inflammation drugs, and great exercise routines.
Their hearts are strong. They are happy. And most importantly: their daily activities involve walking, gardening (and forest bathing; more on that later), and sunshine.
Ogimi is one example. The village enjoys Okinawa’s warm climate that makes it possible to do outdoor activities all year round. Their senior citizens keep active and move as much as their bodies ever allow. Their diet focuses on unprocessed meat, green and yellow vegetables, legumes and fruit—and they keep their salt intake lower than the guideline set by the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare.
People living in Blue Zones have seemed to master the lessons to a long, happy life. And although I, like many others, don’t live in one, we can still learn from them that spending more time in nature is a vital part of living a happy and healthy life.
The Best Thing About Nature Is It’s for Everyone
Nature’s benefits aren’t only to be experienced by the rich and powerful; the health implications are there for everyone. In my experience, it has been the most powerful remedy whenever I’ve been stressed or fatigued because we’re naturally drawn to seek not just quiet time but quiet time in nature.
There’s a reason why health retreats and recovery programmes happen within rural landscapes, relaxing countrysides and serene mountainscapes. It’s also why urban landscape design focuses on smoother blends with nature interwoven through city streets and towns.
It’s also why—also here in the UK—more people than ever have been renovating their entire garden during the coronavirus pandemic. When people think about retirement, they often visualise a warm beach with a cool breeze or pin-drop silence while walking through a field during a morning walk. We don’t just want peace; we want blue skies, soft grass and peaceful rivers.
Because nature is where we heal.
Diocletian was arguably the most powerful leader on earth at one time and one of the few emperors to die naturally retire voluntarily. His reason for retiring was shocked many of his people.
He wanted to become a cabbage farmer.
One day, when asked to return to the throne, he said, “If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed”.
Nature is one of the only things that can impute feelings of happiness, peace, and contentment, while removing desire and greed.
More time in nature is a natural prescription I would recommend all day as it has the power to transform the way you think, move and live.
Strengthen your immune system
Lower your levels of illness and immortality
Decrease your anxiety
Increase your self-confidence
It’s a medicine mostly celebrated in Japanese culture, but you’ll also find similar solutions prescribed in countries such as Norway and Germany.
Nature is why I love cycling. It allows you to feel like you’re on an adventure with every ride, surrounded by trees, fields, and hills, which has done more for my well-being than almost every artificial remedy.
It also allows you to travel further than what you’d achieve on a run or walk. Where I live, it takes 30 minutes of riding until your surroundings become mostly rural. And shortly after I pass that point, it becomes 90 percent countryside or more.
How Much Time in Nature Is Enough?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but a 2019 study found spending at least two hours a week in nature is positively associated with higher self-reports of health and wellbeing.
Whether the participant of the study was old or unhealthy also didn’t seem to matter, nor did it matter if the two hours was spent in one big chunk or short bouts; anyone who spent at least two hours a week in nature had a boost in both physical and mental health compared to those who didn’t.
You could cut it up into 15 minutes per day outside — or go for a long weekend walk with your partner. You can go to a park, your garden, or anywhere with grass and a few trees.
All you need is a few mindful minutes.
Humans love habits; certain things about us never change. Just like eating well and getting exercise benefits our body, time in nature benefits our mind, healing rate, and quality of life—regardless of culture, religion, or background.
It’s a place to think clearly, find peace and boost the spirit. It’s incredible because all you have to do is surround yourself with it for even a few minutes. Humans love the feeling of fresh air, connecting with living things, such as watching the life of a growing plant or feeling a warm river flow between our fingers and toes.
Looking after your health should stay simple—but some societies make it too complicated. Eat well, sleep well and get exercise. But don’t forget to spend time in nature. While not everyone has access to a backyard, forest or ocean, a short daily walk in the park, a weekend hike, or just an open window for a bit can do a world of good.
Frankly, there is no medicine quite like nature.