The power of nature to positively influence our well being should not be underestimated. We are now beginning to understand the beneficial impact that outdoor pursuits such as walking, open water swimming, or even just taking in a beautiful view can have on aspects of our mental and physical health.
Despite this increase in knowledge, humans have become ever more disconnected from the natural world. Urbanisation means fewer green spaces, and technological developments such as television, video games and the internet have claimed much of our recreational time.
We’ve all noticed that doing something as simple as leaving our desk or workstation to eat lunch outside can have positive effects on our mood and productivity afterwards - there’s something about the fresh air and green space which calms and rejuvenates. It’s as if we instinctively seek out these connections with nature.
A phenomenon termed ‘the biophilia hypothesis’ was posited by the American biologist Edward Wilson, who argued that humans have a deep affiliation with other living organisms and an instinctive aesthetic preference for natural environments which means they are fundamentally drawn towards them.
The biophilia hypothesis is based on the idea that our ancestors’ survival depended on connecting with nature - finding water and food sources, for example, or predicting weather conditions. We are therefore unconsciously driven to seek out contact with nature, even by doing something very small, such as buying a houseplant for our kitchen windowsill. What would happen, then, if we go beyond these small changes and really make the effort to reconnect?
The Healing Power of Nature
The effects of nature on our brains is so powerful, that simply looking at photographs of green spaces can have positive effects on physical health. A now famous research study divided a group of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery between two rooms: one with a view onto a natural scene, and one facing a plain brick wall. The results were clear: those patients with a view of nature had shorter recovery times, took fewer painkillers and more positively interacted with nurses than the patients with the man made view.
Now, health service providers are beginning to prescribe getting outdoors as an additional treatment for mental and physical health problems. ‘Social prescribing’ has been used in the NHS since the ‘90’s and has recently become part of a nationwide plan to take a more holistic approach to people’s wellbeing.
GPs are referring patients to outdoor groups and nature based activities, which bring unique benefits to health, while simultaneously reducing strain on the primary care system. The results of research studies looking at the effects of ‘green exercise’ are beginning to show us that outdoor exercisers have better mental health, are more motivated and even see increased physiological improvements compared to those who exercise indoors.
Powerful Ways to Reconnect with Nature
While simply spending time walking in green spaces can be rejuvenating, there are ways to boost the effects, such as walking while meditating. The benefits of meditation are well known and include reduced anxiety, improved mood, increased inner peace, self awareness and general well being.
Mindfulness is a related practice which aims to focus the attention away from distractions with the aim of becoming more present. In the case of a walking meditation, the sights and sounds of nature can be used to draw the mind away from the ‘noise’ of inner thoughts. The smell of flowers, the feeling of a breeze on the skin or the sound of birds chirping can make us more mindful (a term which roughly translates as ‘appreciative’) of the world around us, and there’s the added benefit of gentle exercise. Doing this walking barefoot can make us feel - literally - more connected to the earth beneath our feet.
The Japanese practice a method of immersing themselves in nature called shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing.’ Despite the name, there’s no water involved - instead it refers to the experience of spending time under a forest canopy, bathed in dappled light. The Japanese government has incorporated it into the country’s health system and as evidence for its health benefits grows, courses are popping up around the UK, such as those run by the RSPB at Lake Vyrnwy in Wales.
For some, immersion in water feels the most elemental. The popularity of open water swimming has grown in recent years as fans relish not only the thrill, freedom and challenge associated with navigating a natural body of water but also the associated health benefits. Aside from the obviously beneficial effort involved, many of the physical rewards are a result of the temperature, which is colder than a swimming pool. While more research is needed to explore the exact mechanisms of these effects, advocates claim improvements in their circulation, skin pallor and all around happiness. Let’s face it, a dip in a beautiful, cold lake will always feel more powerfully invigorating than doing lengths in a chlorinated pool.
Why is Nature so Restorative?
The benefits of getting back in touch with natural cycles are well known, then, but why is it so effective? Research has shown that being outside in nature can lead to lower blood pressure, heart rate and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It is known that getting outside during the day can affect the chemical balance in the brain, with rate of serotonin production - a hormone which regulates many bodily functions including mood, appetite, sleep and memory - related to the amount of time spent in bright sunlight. Levels of dopamine - our bodies’ natural reward chemical - can also be increased by spending time in areas of outstanding natural beauty, playing sports, or engaging in physically challenging activities such as open water swimming. Physical activity increases endorphin levels which improve our mood and we soak up some much needed Vitamin D from sunlight at the same time - nearly a quarter of UK adults are deficient in this essential vitamin which is important for bone, teeth and muscle health.
Being outdoors also allows our brains to relax. Taking in natural beauty is a fascinating experience, but it’s also one that we can allow to wash over us, giving our minds space to rest and wander. Research studies which have used an EEG machine to monitor electrical activity in the brain have shown that our brains produce more Alpha waves - those which indicate a a calm but alert state - when we are immersed in nature.
It is thought that we experience these effects because we evolved outdoors, and our need to be surrounded by nature runs deep. The ‘Connectedness to Nature Scale’ was devised to measure to what degree people feel part of nature, and its creators Mayer and McPherson Franz stated that, ‘if people feel connected to nature, then they will be less likely to harm it, for harming it in essence would be harming their very self.’ It is possible that when we feel at one with our natural surroundings we feel we are also nurturing something fundamental within. With so many modern distractions vying to grab our attention, is it that reconnecting with nature also means reconnecting with ourselves?
In looking for ways to nurture our sense of inner peace, we are making changes in our interactions with the environment which extend beyond simply moving outdoors. Finding new ways to live more respectfully and in harmony with the natural world means we might be interested in lifestyle changes, such as seeking out ethically produced clothing - that which is made by people who are paid a fair price for their work using materials which do not harm the planet. Maybe we take more care to put our money behind detergents which are biodegradable so that we do not wash harmful chemicals down the drain. Perhaps we choose to buy second hand goods over new, or cut down on the amount of waste we produce.
We might make changes in our food choices, to ensure the produce we buy is grown or farmed in harmony with natural cycles, paying respect to the interconnectedness of our ecological systems. Supporting methods such as regenerative farming means we can work to replace some of the resources we have drained from the natural world, including replenishing nutrient stripped soil, storing water, supporting storage of carbon, increasing resilience to climate change and promoting biodiversity.
Nurturing the Earth for future generations means adapting our ways of living to let nature take its course. In doing so, we can get back in touch with the important, elemental things around us, finding calm and contentment amidst the ever increasing chaos.
Forest Bathing: The RSPB is one of many organisations that run forest bathing courses.
The Outdoor Swimming Society: Lots of information on how to get started, safety in the water and groups/events.
UK Camp Sites: A directory.
UK Walking Routes: A directory of walks, trails and viewpoints all around the UK https://www.discoveringbritain.org/
All Trails: This site has 100,000+ trails stored and you can download a companion app
Green exercise: Information on the benefits of green exercise from the NHS, including kinks to research, headlines and further reading.
Guide to British Trees: Lots of information on how to identify British trees, and an identification app.
Mindfulness: Information on mindfulness from the NHS with links to wider resources.
A guide to UK birds.
A guide to UK birds of prey.
A guide to UK insects.
A guide to British mammals.