Land, Water and People: The health benefits of nature

I count myself lucky to have grown up in rural southern New Hampshire. Our house sat on a small one and a half acre lot next to a northern hardwood forest. A beautiful brook, chock full of trout, wound through trees and pasture just a quarter mile down the road. I often sought refuge in the forest and next to the brook from the stress that was too prevalent in my childhood home.

Finding relief in natural settings from life’s inevitable stresses is not a new concept. The 16th-century German-Swiss physician, Paracelsus, wrote, “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.” And there have been many American writers ranging from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir and Rachel Carson who have written about the virtues of spending time in nature.

Many people understand through their own experiences that taking a walk in the woods, next to a river, or even along a country road relieves tension and relaxes the mind. But are the benefits due to being in nature or from the exercise one gets from walking?

Researchers from Japan decided to take a crack at answering that question. They sent participants for walks of similar length and difficulty in either a forest or city center while measuring their blood pressure, heart rate, and heart variability. The forest walkers showed significant decreases in the stress hormone cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure. The woods strollers also reported better moods and less anxiety than the city walkers. A similar study done in Finland showed similar results.

Interestingly, one doesn’t actually have to be out in nature to experience its stress-busting benefits. A study done at Texas A&M showed that students who viewed a stress-inducing movie recovered more quickly when shown a video with natural scenes compared to students who were shown a video of urban settings. And in Sweden, a study found stressed out participants recovered more quickly when sitting in a 3-D virtual reality room with the sounds of birdsong and scenes of nature compared to those who sat in a plain room.

Another study, done in Scotland, found that people who lived next to parks or other green spaces were healthier than those who lived further away. One might intuit that is because people near the parks got out and used them more often, but the results showed it applied even to those who didn’t. Other studies have shown that hospital patients with window views looking out at green lawns or trees recover quicker than those with views of parking lots and buildings.

Several studies have also shown that spending time in nature relieves attention fatigue and increases creativity. Attention fatigue occurs from too many things in our lives begging for attention. This overload of input competes for cognitive resources reducing our creativity and ability to solve problems. A stroll in a natural setting eliminates the overload and resets the brain to its “default setting” – the part of the brain at work when we are not engaged in other tasks. It has been shown that we tend to be most creative when our brain is in this state.

We are fortunate to live in the Upper Rio Grande, a place with more than 2.5 million acres of federal, state, county, and city lands open to the public. We can look out our windows or stand outside and see the spectacular mountains that surround the valley. We can see the agricultural lands that offer their own kind of beauty. According to scientific studies, we already have a healthy advantage over our urban friends just due to where we live.

Science also tells us that exercise is good for us, so what better way to double down on the benefits of where we live than to get outside and walk, ride, skate, ski or snowshoe in nature. Make this the year that you amend the “exercise more” part of your New Year’s resolution with “in natural settings.”

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.