Engage Nature for Good Health

— Written By

[Article written by Lloyd Singleton for the Wilmington Star-News, March 27, 2020]

Regardless of age or culture, humans find nature pleasing.

The vitamin D-filled sun rays, the lung cleansing fresh air, the noises of nature are all incredibly grounding and important to me right now in this period of weird physical isolation otherwise known as social distancing. What is it about being outdoors that increases our solace as human beings?

Research reveals that environments can increase or reduce our stress, which in turn impacts our bodies. What you are seeing, hearing, experiencing at any moment is changing not only your mood, but how your nervous, immune, and endocrine systems are working. The stress of an unpleasant environment can cause you to feel anxious, or sad, or helpless, elevating your blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension and suppressing your immune system. A pleasing environment reverses that.

As reported by the National Institutes of Health in “Health and the Environment in the Southeastern United States,” the natural environment is the thin layer of life and life supports, called the biosphere, that contains the earth’s air, soil, water, and living organisms. The connection between protecting the natural environment and safeguarding human health has been recognized for some time. In recent decades the focus of research and legislation has been identifying and regulating environmental toxics to reduce harmful human exposures. The effect of various environmental exposures, such as toxic chemicals, air pollution, and biological agents on the human body, is commonly perceived as the central problem in environmental health. However, maintaining a healthy environment extends beyond controlling these hazards.

Preserving the variety of life on earth is also essential to human health. The natural world continually offers compounds that are useful to the pharmacopoeia. Animal and plant products are vital for research and diagnostic tools, and they can be used as indicators of pollution-related disease. Research suggests that biodiversity may hold a key to the prevention and treatment of many diseases. And nature is good for us as a species.

Regardless of age or culture, humans find nature pleasing. Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.

One of the most intriguing areas of current research is the impact of nature on general wellbeing. In one study, 95% of those interviewed said their mood improved after spending time outside, changing from depressed, stressed, and anxious to more calm and balanced. Other studies show that time in nature or scenes of nature are associated with a positive mood, and psychological wellbeing, meaningfulness, and vitality.

Furthermore, time in nature or viewing nature scenes increases our ability to pay attention. Because humans find nature inherently interesting, we can naturally focus on what we are experiencing out in nature. This also provides a respite for our overactive minds, refreshing us for new tasks. As I engage my work world digitally in new ways, a renewal of focus is welcome.

Nature also connects us even as we are distanced. The experience of connection may be explained by studies that used fMRI to measure brain activity. When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.

So, whether you are able to be out for a walk or viewing something natural from a window, take in all that nature has to offer as pandemic respite and for your good health.

Lloyd Singleton is director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension, New Hanover County Center. Reach him at losingle@ncsu.edu or 910-798-7660.

Visit Extension’s COVID-19 Resources and Information website for more Health and Wellness resources to assist during the COVID-19 pandemic.