“If I must be rooted, plant my feet in rich soil, let my womanly flesh harden to bark, and let my limbs, robust in sleeves of evergreen, keep reaching for the sun.”Jane Elle Glasser
My true relationship with nature started as a child making mud pies and potions in the pouring rain at my great grandparents house. Their big yard with its huge leaf piles and winding wooded trail became my solace and home away from home. I have vivid memories of sitting in the yard for hours without a care in the world watching the fireflies float past at dusk. I would go on an adventure hunt for caterpillars or dig for earthworms and helped my grandmother pick the ripest strawberries from her garden. The way I envision it in my head, it feels like heaven. Safe. Relaxed. Free. When I reflect on that time in our world, the late 80’s, I realize how grateful I am to have experienced a time before internet technology took over. How exhilarating it was to be so disconnected and to experience moments and feelings I had no desire to share with others. Whatever it was, it was just for me and not privy to anyone else. Now, it feels like more than ever there is an incessant, almost uncontrollable drive to share and if we don’t share it, the worth placed on the experience is somehow “less”. I bring this up because I think technology and the internet is the single largest reason for people today not getting outdoors and enjoying nature and this has many negative implications for us personally as well as a society. Of course, I say all this as I’m doing the same thing… blogging, sharing… but equally important and to the point is choosing quality over quantity and only we truly know our own limits. (Skip to the bottom if you want to get right to the list.)
Richard Louv in his book The Nature Principle believes people living in high-tech societies often suffer from what he calls “nature deficit disorder”. It’s not an official medical diagnosis but it does offer a description for a host of behavioral problems that result, particularly in children, from Louv’s observations of not having enough time outdoors. Some of the observed effects of not getting enough time outdoors seem to be increased attention disorders, depression, reduction in cognitive development, reduction in a sense of wonder and connection to the earth. Louv believes the reasoning children don’t get enough time outside is parent’s growing fear of “stranger danger” that is heavily fueled by the media, a general loss of natural surroundings in neighborhoods, and an increase in varied screen time from tv, phones and ipads.
A two year long study in the UK gathered information on over 10,000 children under the age of 16 years and discovered that nearly 75% of children are spending less than an hour outside a day and nearly 25% are not going outside at all. Children are playing outside on average, half the time their parents did at just over four hours a week. Another study by the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine discovered that children ages 10 – 16 spend approx. 10 waking hours of being relatively motionless and only 13 minutes outside.
It’s overly simplistic to say that “outdoors is good, indoors is bad”. There are many benefits to both and activities that can only be done in one setting or the other but clearly, the pendulum might have swung too far to one side in the modern age. Getting children outside is essential if we are to give the next generation the physical and mental health they need to thrive. When we limit our own personal time outside, it can have similar effects as it does in children and has been linked with anxiety, depression, a more negative view of ourselves and our lives, a lack of self esteem and confidence, eye problems, obesity and a general unwellness.
We used to have more time for relaxing, thinking about and absorbing the day. Now it seems almost every waking moment is filled with something. We are hypothetically more connected than ever before but are seemingly experiencing a detachment to nature, experiences, friends, romantic relationships, family and the foundations of our identity. When overly connected to technology we can become bombarded by bad news (if we let it), of anxiety inducing 1 in a million chances stories. It’s overwhelming and debilitating for anyone. How do we find our way back to nature and ourselves and give up, at least partially, our addiction to technology?
Many people like to make the argument that we’ve always been reading and doing things with our extra time which is true. People used to think newspapers were impersonal and made people anti social. However, our brain does very different and much more beneficial things when we read for leisure than it does when scrolling through news articles or random posts on our phone. According to one study, reading for leisure for just 6 minutes reduced stress by nearly 70%, even more than listening to music or going for a walk. In this example, we can clearly observe that the quality of the content we are viewing when we’re using technology is equally important as the time we’re using it for.
Children might be on an ipad and doing a tutoring or reading program and of course that is wholly different than just scrolling mindlessly through youtube. Multiple studies have found that just viewing pictures of natural scenes or animals had a restorative effect on cognitive function. Nature programs might be a good option and way to meet in the middle if our child is really begging for TV or in need of a temporary distraction. Our diet is not just what we eat, but what we read, listen to, and watch. Going back to my main point, I think this is largely an issue of having quality over quantity and being very selective with how we use our technology and our time. Like every relationship, the one with technology as well just simply needs minding and maintenance.
This is completely a scenario where I am absolutely preaching to the choir but this was as much written for myself as a reminder to look back on. I just really wanted to match the measured studies with what we already affectionately and innately know and feel in our bodies when we are immersed in the more natural world. We are ‘natural’ ourselves of course as is arguably what we create and build, but this is rather referring to the health, curiosity, creativity and relaxation that is stirred when we are immersed in environments that were sculpted by other living beings than ourselves… the trees, insects, birds, water and land itself. I think of course anything can become unhealthy and out of balance which, as we have observed throughout history typically spells disaster for that organism, but all of this is putting human definition to that which is often intangible. I think we are ultimately quite simply a closed system of constantly changing energy patterns, destroying, pulling down, creating anew and building.
Each unique organism contains consciousness that is adapting to its container that has inescapable rules (genetic codes… appearance, behaviors, hormones, epigenetic history etc.) that govern it. 99% of species have come and gone already. We are not unique (I should say Western Capitalism is not unique) in being destroyers of ourselves and other parts of our closed system that is our Earth. Overgrowth of trees have even caused a mass extinction. It’s just that it’s rather depressing being entrenched in a system that is the cause this go around. I constantly look to Indigenous and Native voices on this topic and we have to collectively, massively downsize as well as find creative solutions to harness only renewable energy. Will it be enough to save ourselves? Probably not but maybe. Who knows how long a few of us will survive continuing to evolve through whatever downfall of ourselves we create. Maybe we’ll get it right someday and learn how to live here as long as humanly possible to witness the evolution of the spirit within this form or similar forms. Would I rather it be a comet that took us out? Well, no, I haven’t sunk that far in lack of hope yet.
Now I’ve gone off tangent…
How Can We Reintroduce Ourselves or Children to The Outdoors More Frequently?
1. We can start by going to cultivated outdoor spaces more frequently like the local city park. We can set aside specific dates a month to help truly carve out time for outdoors. We can mark calendars, set alarms, do whatever we have to do to genuinely carve out that time purposefully so that time doesn’t escape us.
2. Setting sensible technology boundaries for ourself and children. The APA recommends very limited screen time for any child under the age of 2. For children, 2 to 5, screen time is one hour per day of high-quality programming. For children 6 and up, they recommend consistent limits. For ourselves, it’s generally going to be a few hours a day or less.
3. We can make the outdoors more fun by incorporating natural objects to use for crafts or in play if we have children. We can garden, forage, hike or take up other outdoor hobbies. Creating outdoor toys like capes, butterfly wings or other items could help children that don’t typically enjoy being outside.
4. If we have children, we can talk to their caregiver, daycare provider or teacher about ways our child can increase their outdoor time while we’re at work. If you bring evidence to them, they might be inclined to get children outdoors more often for educational activities. The Child and Family Development Center put together a great meta-analysis of the importance of outdoor play and its impact on brain development.
5. We can transition from trash TV, reality TV or news networks to nature programs or documentaries.
6. As our comfort grows with going to cultivated outdoor spaces, we can broaden our horizon by camping or hiking at our local parks, trail or campground or simply wild camp.
Proven Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
Reduces anxiety and depression
“71% of respondents reported decreased levels of depression following a green walk in one study.” “More than 50% of people now live in urban areas. By 2050 this proportion will be 70%. Urbanization is associated with increased levels of mental illness, but it’s not yet clear why. Through a controlled experiment, we investigated whether nature experience would influence rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self), a known risk factor for mental illness. Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”
Improves creativity and problem solving
“Consistent with ART, research indicates that exposure to natural settings seems to replenish some, lower-level modules of the executive attentional system. However, the impact of nature on higher-level tasks such as creative problem solving has not been explored. Here we show that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50% in a group of naive hikers. Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting.”
Improves short term-memory, concentration and focus
“Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative. We present two experiments that show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities as measured with a backwards digit-span task and the Attention Network Task, thus validating attention restoration theory.”
Improves self esteem and self image
“Mind has commissioned two studies from the University of Essex, the results of which are published in this report. These studies confirm that participating in green exercise activities provides substantial benefits for health and wellbeing. 90% of respondents had increased self-esteem after a green walk while 44% of people experienced reduced levels of self-esteem following the indoor shopping centre walk.”
Provides and promotes easy exercise as well as motivation
“There is some evidence to suggest that exercise may feel easier when performed in the natural environment. When allowed to self-select walking speed, participants tend actually to walk faster outdoors, compared to indoors. Paradoxically, they report a lower rating of perceived exertion. It is likely that promoting attention to an external pleasant and green environment reduces awareness of physiologic sensations and negative emotions, thus minimizing the perception of effort. A systematic review of studies comparing indoor versus outdoor activity conducted in natural environment suggests that outdoor activity which is conducted in a natural or green environment causes greater feelings of revitalisation and positive engagement . All types of green exercise activities also improve self-esteem and negative mood subscales, such as tension, anger and depression [42,43]. Interestingly, the first five minutes of green exercise appears to have the biggest impact on mood and self-esteem, suggesting an immediate psychological health benefit .”
Opportunities to ‘ground’ using the earth’s energy
“Reconnection with the Earth’s electrons has been found to promote intriguing physiological changes and subjective reports of well-being. Earthing (or grounding) refers to the discovery of benefits—including better sleep and reduced pain—from walking barefoot outside or sitting, working, or sleeping indoors connected to conductive systems that transfer the Earth’s electrons from the ground into the body.”
Improves immune system
“Natural killer (cells that are critical to the immune system’s function) (NK) activity, the numbers of NK, granulysin-, perforin-, and granzymes A/B-expressing lymphocytes in the blood, and the concentration of urinary adrenaline were measured. The same measurements were made before the trips on a normal working day as a control. The mean values of NK activity and the numbers of NK, granulysin-, perforin-, and granzymes A/B-expressing cells on forest bathing days were significantly higher than those on the control days, whereas the mean values of the concentration of urinary adrenaline on forest bathing days were significantly lower than that on the control days in both male and female subjects. The increased NK activity lasted for more than 30 days after the trip, suggesting that a forest bathing trip once a month would enable individuals to maintain a higher level of NK activity. In contrast, a visit to the city as a tourist did not increase NK activity, the numbers of NK cells, or the level of intracellular granulysin, perforin, and granzymes A/B. These findings indicate that forest bathing trips resulted in an increase in NK activity, which was mediated by increases in the number of NK cells and the levels of intracellular granulysin, perforin, and granzymes A/B.”
Improves blood pressure
“Twenty-four elderly patients with essential hypertension were randomly divided into two groups of 12. One group was sent to a broad-leaved evergreen forest to experience a 7-day/7-night trip, and the other was sent to a city area in Hangzhou for control. Little alteration in the detected indicators in the city group was observed after the experiment. While subjects exposed to the forest environment showed a significant reduction in blood pressure in comparison to that of the city group. The values for the bio-indicators in subjects exposed to the forest environment were also lower than those in the urban control group and the baseline levels of themselves.”
Reduces bodily inflammation
“Twenty healthy male university students participated as subjects and were randomly divided into two groups of 10. One group was sent on a two-night trip to a broad-leaved evergreen forest, and the other was sent to a city area. Serum cytokine levels reflecting inflammatory and stress response, indicators reflecting oxidative stress, the distribution of leukocyte subsets, and plasma endothelin-1 (ET-1) concentrations were measured before and after the experiment to evaluate the positive health effects of forest environments. A profile of mood states (POMS) evaluation was used to assess changes in mood states. No significant differences in the baseline values of the indicators were observed between the two groups before the experiment. Subjects exposed to the forest environment showed reduced oxidative stress and pro-inflammatory level, as evidenced by decreased malondialdehyde, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor a levels compared with the urban group.”
Reduces risks of CVS (Computer Vision Syndrome) and nearsightedness (myopia)
“Eye problems caused by computer use fall under the heading computer vision syndrome (CVS). It isn’t one specific problem. Instead, it includes a whole range of eye strain and pain. Research shows that between 50% and 90% of people who work at a computer screen have at least some symptoms.” “Longitudinal data from the Orinda Longitudinal Study of Myopia have shown that children with the risk factor for myopia of myopic parents, are at only slightly greater risk than children without myopic parents if they spend sufficient time outside. Data from the Sydney Myopia Study data, while cross-sectional in nature, suggest that greater time spent outside can also over-ride the greater risk associated with near work and schooling.”
Increases opportunity for getting vitamin D
“Studies suggest vitamin D may go beyond its well-established role in bone health and reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and more. What makes vitamin D so unique is that it is a vitamin and also a hormone your body can make from the sun. Despite the ability to get vitamin D from food and the sun, an estimated 40%-75% of people are deficient.”
Increases oxygen absorption
“Depending on your local outdoor or personal indoor air quality, it may improve your oxygen absorption to get more time outside. Oxygen is critical for all functions of our bodies and getting enough of it helps us have more energy and be more fresh and alert.”
Improves sleep and decreased fatigue
“Researchers found that a week of winter camping reset the body’s “clock” to be more in tune with nature’s light-and-dark cycle. The result was longer sleep. The study also highlights how modern living — so heavy on artificial light — may thwart our sleep. It’s clear that modern environments do influence our circadian rhythms, said Kenneth Wright, the study’s senior researcher.”
I listed at least one reputable source for each claim with good controls but truth be told, the list of studies I came across reflecting the positive impacts of nature, control or not, was endless. Many doctor’s are now prescribing “ecotherapy” or “green therapy” for many various ailments. Just recently, doctors in Shetland, Scotland began prescribing nature to their patients for various ailments. Their leaflet is filled with wonderful monthly suggestions that really anyone could adapt to their locale and try.