Brittaney and I (Sydney) are incredibly fond of the influence nature has on wellbeing. Similar to how children and young people are spending less time in the kitchen, we are spending less time in the forest. We NEED to get back to nature. We NEED to nurture our intrinsic bond with the natural world that stems from an evolutionary basis, where we relied on and interacted with nature daily for SURVIVAL.
The research is CLEAR. There are institutional changes being made to reflect this. Starting from a young age, we are implementing naturalized playgrounds in schools to allow children to play amongst wood chips, logs and under trees instead of being surrounded by artificial, plastic playgrounds. Hospitals recognize and have made adjustments to reflect the importance of having windows facing natural settings for acute care patients. Long term care homes are incorporating natural therapy into their facilities to provide residents access to indoor greenhouses, plants, imagery and so on. Being immersed in green spaces leads to improved wellbeing.
Keep reading as Syd shares how…
Nature HEALS, SOOTHES, RESTORES and CONNECTS us!
PICTURE THIS: Your family physician hands you a prescription that reads: “walk in nature”.
Physicians in Scotland recognize the important role nature plays in their patients’ physical AND mental health. This program was rolled out this past fall following a successful pilot and involves discussing the benefits of nature with patients using a pamphlet and a calendar with outdoor activities tailored to their region. Calling all Canadian GPs… can we expect this soon?!
From a simple nature walk to viewing scenes of nature, there are SO many benefits to be drawn from immersing ourselves in the natural world. Evidence has shown reductions in anxiety, rumination and negative feelings after being immersed in nature for a short stroll. In addition to the wonders nature can do for your emotional health, physical benefits reported in the literature include reductions in blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, stress hormone production and improved physical wellbeing.
Nature HEALS Greenspace Tips:
- Set down your phone, step away from your workstation and go for a walk outdoors on your lunch break! If your work is in an urban setting, bring some plants indoors. Impress your colleagues by adopting and growing a starter plant such as a snake plant, spider plant or pothos vine!
- If you are questioning the colour of your thumb, images of a natural scene (landscape photo or painting) or an aquarium bring about similar effects as being in nature on reduction in stress, feelings of anger and fear, and increased pleasant feelings!
REFLECTION: “I think of emotional well-being as a resource within each of us that allows us to do more and to perform better. That doesn’t mean just the absence of mental illness. It’s the presence of positive emotions that allows us to be resilient in the face of adversity.” – Vivek Murthy
We hear and read about physical health a LOT. As dietitians, we are trained in medical nutrition therapies and how to help people implement sustainable, health behaviour changes. Of course, nutrition and joyful movement are very important pieces to our unique health puzzles, but emotional health plays JUST AS important of a role in our wellbeing. Our emotional health is no difference from a muscle that needs to be worked out to improve its strength. Working on our emotional health can help us improve our coping mechanisms, relationships & resilience (we’re talking iceberg tip here)!
STRESS is something we experience regardless of where we sit on the emotional health continuum. Someone who works at improving their emotional health is simply more skilled at managing their negative feelings.
Researchers have identified two ways NATURE can help us “soothe” our stress levels:
Stress Recovery Theory examines how nature favourably alters physical signs of the stress response such as activating the “rest and relax” responses of the parasympathetic nervous system (think reduced heart rate, returning to a more balanced, relaxed state following a stressful situation like a tight work deadline or argument with a colleague).
Attention Restoration Theory emphasizes how being immersed in nature can relieve mental fatigue due to excessive, taxing levels of concentration (think of how you feel when you are overworked, driving a long, daily commute to and from work!) and provide a means of recovery to your ability to be attentive.
Basically, nature impacts the physical and emotional components of stress which can be a tool you use to strengthen your overall emotional health!
Nature SOOTHES Greenspace Tips:
- Sign up for a guided hike (weekend nature walks are offered by RBG and meditation hikes are offered through Halton Conservation in the summer)
- Purchase a conservation pass. Bring the family to a park for a picnic or invite a friend to try a new activity at one of the conservation areas. Passes usually provide discounts for seasonal equipment rentals (skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing).
It’s no wonder we are drawn to vacations that bring us closer to natural wonders, weekend camping trips, visits to the cottage, and hikes that remove us from the urban jungle every once and a while. It’s hard to say exactly what it is about being close to nature that makes us feel the way it does. It instills a sense of wonder and smallness. It is therapeutic to be amongst an ever-changing environment, where we receive endless sensory stimuli but have no obligations to act on what we are sensing. We can just exist in the environment, in one moment, and be passive observers.
The general consensus from research points to nature’s ability to improve our mood by making us feel more calm and balanced. It restores our ability to focus, something important to have a full tank of when we return to our busy work weeks. The following nature rx is a simple activity. It doesn’t take more than a short stroll outdoors to reap the benefits outlined above.
Nature RESTORES Greenspace Tip:
- Catch up with friends over an outdoor adventure. You don’t have to travel far. Dress warm and pick up a warm drink on your way to the trailhead. Challenge yourselves to use your senses to find something new while walking. Appreciate the diversity of the ecology within a natural space even in the mid of winter! You might be surprised to find a colourful grouping of fungi living on a dead stump, or hear the song of a chickadee in the nearby shrub.
Nature helps us form deeper connections with ourselves and each other. Ever gone for a walk in the woods and noticed your pace slow? Your mind stops racing in an effort to keep up with the speed of your busy pace of life?
TRY THIS: Put your phone on silent, remove your earbuds and step outside. Nature can probably teach you lessons that extend beyond improving your relationship with yourself, or between you and the natural world. Immersing yourself in nature can improve your social connectedness.
Nature has a way of:
- Making us feel closer to others
- Instilling a sense of belonging and community
- Increasing our capacity to cope with life’s demands and stresses
In addition to our mental health and strength as mentioned above, spending time in nature positively affects our social health. When was the last time you took a mental break outdoors?
Nature CONNECTS Greenspace Tips:
- Sign up for an organized outdoor sport (ultimate frisbee, running club)!
- Register for an outdoor event that allows you to set small, realistic training goals (Mud Hero, a 5km run). Convince a friend to join you for accountability and social stimulation!
- Next time you get together with a friend, hit up a local trail!
Photos and Article by: Sydney Withers RD
Sources: FamilyDoctor.org, Frumkin et al. 2017, Psychology Today, Science Alert, University of Waterloo, University of Minnesota
Frumkin, H., Bratman, G.N., Breslow, S.J., Cochran, B., Kahn Jr, P.H., Lawler, J.J., Levin, P.S., Tandon, P.S., Varanasi, U., Wolf, K.L., & Spencer A. Wood. (2017). Nature contact and human health: A research agenda. Environ Health Perspect, 125(7), doi: 10.1289/EHP1663