This Is Your Brain on Nature

20170414_Sequioa National Park

Lately we’ve been sharing ideas and information to help you plan upcoming outdoor adventures with friends and family. Now, we’re excited to let you in on the health benefits of doing those activities. Aside from the bugs, which we can help ward off, spending time in nature yields a multitude of health and wellness benefits. Have a read…

For optimal health, the latest research keeps pointing us in the same direction: outdoors!

“Time spent in nature may also improve social bonding and reduce social violence, stimulate learning and creativity, strengthen the conservation ethic, and even help raise standardized test scores.”

Richard Louv, author of Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life

We’ve all felt that undeniable sense of peace that washes over you when you walk through a natural setting. The heart rate slows, the breath deepens, even the mind seems to slow its thoughts. We don’t need an expert to tell us that time spent outdoors makes us feel good. But how exactly does that peaceful feeling translate into wellness?

Mounting research shows spending anywhere from three minutes to three days surrounded by nature can benefit your health in a surprising number of ways. Even the simple act of walking through a local park instead of along a city street significantly slows the flow of blood in the prefrontal cortex, the command center of the brain, according to a 2015 study. (Translation: Quieter brain, happier mood.)

Other studies have found that same nature walk also can decrease the amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Just moving your workout from the gym to the outdoors gives you greater feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction and engagement, making it more likely you’ll repeat the activity, says a 2017 paper published in the Health & Place International Journal.

Finding life in Death Valley National Park.
Finding life in Death Valley National Park.

Jeff Bartlett

For those who struggle with sleep disorders, spending a weekend camping in the wilderness exposed to lots of natural light during the day and none artificial light at night can restore disrupted circadian rhythms associated with insomnia, reduced cognitive performance, mood disorders, diabetes and obesity, according to more recent research. Spending as little as two days camping in a remote area was enough to reset participants’ internal clocks so they slept better once they returned home.

The effect on school-aged children and young adults may be among the most impressive connections between nature and wellness. Research from the University of Utah found subjects scored 50 percent better on creativity tests after spending several days in nature disconnected from devices.

Kids today spend more time indoors and on screens than ever before in human history, which means they’re spending a lot less time outdoors.

Coining the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to explain the increasing loss of connection to nature as a chronic condition that results in emotional and behavioral problems in kids, award-winning author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv says the cure is to turn off the screens and play outdoors, hike, fish, or camp. “The evidence indicates that experiences in the natural world may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder, serve as a buffer to depression and anxiety, help prevent or reduce obesity, boost the immune system, and offer many other psychological and physical health benefits,” he says. “Time spent in nature may also improve social bonding and reduce social violence, stimulate learning and creativity, strengthen the conservation ethic, and even help raise standardized test scores.”

In his most recent book, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, Louv offers practical advice on how to get the most health benefits from nature. “Outdoor play of any sort is preferred to a sedentary lifestyle, but the quality of the nature experience depends on how direct the experience with nature is. Are kids getting their hands wet and their feet muddy? Are they experiencing nature directly? These types of activities can help kids learn to have confidence in themselves and power to make independent decisions,” he says. “One reason for this is the risk-taking inherent in outdoor play, which plays an important role in child development.”

Marketing Nature

Nappbing fresh tracks at Mount Rainier National Park.
Nappbing fresh tracks at Mount Rainier National Park.

Jeff Bartlett

For 75 years, Outward Bound has been providing wilderness expeditions focused on building character through mountaineering, rafting, sailing and rock climbing experiences. This program has always understood the healing power of the wilderness, so perhaps it’s no surprise they now offer Intercept Expeditions specifically designed for families with teens struggling with conflict resolution; Veterans Expeditions for returning service members struggling to readjust to life at home, and Grieving Teens Expeditions to facilitate a healing environment for young people who are dealing with loss.

The Sierra Club has its own similar program: Inspiring Connections Outdoors. Along with its Our Wild America campaign, these programs prioritize nature for wellness by offering trips and experiences to people with limited access to the outdoors.

Outfitter REI also has embraced the medicalization of nature, partnering with Florence Williams, author of 2017’s The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, to launch a new wellness blog.

Many tourism boards have also started to focus their marketing campaigns on connecting the outdoors with wellness.

Essential Costa Rica started Save the Americans, a tongue-in-cheek marketing message where they have the animals of Costa Rica calling out to the stressed-out humans to get back to their natural habitat and restore their health and sanity. Juxtaposing videos of animals in trees with people overworked in their offices, they offer Costa Rica as a sanctuary to restore and rehabilitate in a natural human habitat.

Noticing the emerging data on the correlation of nature and health, Nooshin Razani, M.D. of the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, trains pediatricians in her outpatient clinic to write prescriptions to visit nearby parks. The hospital has partnered with the East Bay Regional Parks District to provide transportation for families in a monthly nature shuttle to nearby parks as part of their SHINE program. The program has created some of the first-ever validated protocols for physicians and health systems to integrate nature-based interventions into practice, completing the first randomized trial of a park prescription program. In her 2016 Ted talk, “Prescribing Nature for Health,” Razani describes the healing power of nature and why it is her mission as a doctor to prescribe time in nature as a way to treat health conditions.

Reflecting on a great day at Olympic National Park.
Reflecting on a great day at Olympic National Park.

Jeff Bartlett

The nature as medicine philosophy isn’t limited to campfires, fishing and gazing at the Milky Way. Even unexpected and innovative activities like therapeutic horseback riding for people with disabilities are really catching on in the medical community. Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International promotes equine-assisted activities and therapies for people with special needs. PATH Certified Instructor Karen Boebinger from Florida’s Freedom Ride organization explains, “Therapeutic horseback riding benefits riders on many levels. Increased core strength, balance, coordination, improved digestion and flexibility are all improved through the natural movement of the horse. Of course the beautiful outdoor environment and the relationship with a magnificent equine therapist are equally important.”

Whether you’re marketing to an audience that already spends a lot of time outdoors, or you’re trying to reach those who strive for that but can’t seem to get there, there’s both ample evidence and plenty of case studies that show the enormous power of nature to heal.

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Written by Vicky Hodges for RootsRated in partnership with RootsRated Media.

Featured image provided by Jeff Bartlett

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