We can never have enough nature. – Henry David Thoreau
I write this post from the Northeastern United States, where we are enjoying a temporary respite from an insanely cold winter. After being couped up in the house and office for the past few weeks, living off of recycled air and artificial lighting, I took advantage of today’s unseasonable warmth and went for a hike in Sandy Hook National Park. The air was fresh and crisp, and life had returned to the park as though it was the first day of spring. The warmth of the sun invigorated my body and imbibed me with a newfound energy. I was reminded of a simple but powerful principle: nature is not optional.
To live an optimally healthy life, nature must be a central part of it. Think about it. Through millions of years of evolution, human beings lived in natural surroundings. There was no alternative. It wasn’t until the last few generations that we have divorced ourselves from our natural habitat. In the entire course of human history, we have spent less than 0.01% of it living in modern surroundings with modern technology. Our bodies and minds are therefore best adapted for living in natural environments.
Today, the average human can easily live an entire life without setting foot in a natural environment. Waking up in a house, communicating with friends on social media, driving to an office, sitting in a cubicle, having food delivered, shopping online, driving home, watching TV, going to sleep, waking up and doing it all over again. But is this way of life physically healthy or mentally sustainable?
Science is beginning to prove that immersion in nature can have far reaching benefits to our health and psychology.
A 2007 study from the University of Essex found that a walk in natural surroundings reduced depression in 71% of participants. As little a seven minutes spent in such settings increased mood, self-esteem and motivation.
A separate large, two decade study concluded that “on average, individuals have both lower mental distress and higher well-being when living in urban areas with more green space… the potential cumulative benefit at the community level highlights the importance of policies to protect and promote urban green spaces for well-being.”
So far we have seen the psychological benefits of nature immersion, but what about physical health benefits? A well known study published by Dr. Roger S. Ulrich, Professor of Architecture at Texas A&M and member of The Center for Healthcare Design, showed that patients staying in rooms with views of trees had much shorter hospital stays than those patients who had views of brick walls. He also contends that designing hospitals for patients to have more access to nature and other positive surroundings will lead to a reduction in recovery time.
Further research published in Psychosomatic Medicine shows that access to natural light in post-operative patients reduces their use of pain medication and recovery time.
There is a definite correlation here between nature and our physiological well-being and cognitive functioning. Given our evolutionary history, this is not surprising. So now that we know that nature can be medicine, how can we get more of it in our lives?
The first step would be to schedule it. As leadership coach Michael Hyatt says, “What gets scheduled gets done.” If you find yourself lost in a hectic schedule with little time to spend in nature, try penciling it in to your to-do list. This will make it a priority that you are more likely to stick to. Try starting out with just a ten minute hike in your local park. The more often you do it, the more it will become a habit, and the more you will reap the benefits.
Take small steps to limit your time in artificial environments. Put down your phone. It’s difficult to attune yourself to mother nature if you’re constantly on your mobile device checking your email. Make sure you take deliberate steps throughout the day to unplug. Remember, although technology is sometimes helpful, it is the antithesis of nature. So even if you can’t make it to Yosemite, try powering down your screen and reading a book made of actual paper.
Taking these simples steps are a start to incorporating more nature into your life. As we have seen, natural surroundings can improve your overall health, mood, self-esteem, and motivation. As men in today’s society, I believe we could use more of these precious attributes. If a ten minute walk in the park can bring about these benefits, then I say what are you waiting for?
So what will you do today to incorporate more nature into your life? Please let me know your thoughts below.