“The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world’s joy.” Henry Ward Beecher
Most of us know that getting out into nature is beneficial, whether it’s the exercise, clean air, vitamin D production, or simply taking a break from our frenetic daily lives. We definitely need the benefits of getting outdoors these days.
Studies show that time spent in contact with nature has important and positive psychological, especially neurological, effects on the mind. Even the amount of green space around a school is associated with decreased stress, better attention capacity and reduced mental fatigue and aggression.
With increased worries and tensions over the past few months, drastic changes to everyday life, and financial uncertainty, spending time outside right now provides a welcome relief from stress. Studies show that even just 20 minutes per day spent in nature can lower stress hormone levels, boost self-esteem and improve mood.
For children, time spent outside under the taxing circumstances of a pandemic—stress from being home from school, uncertain conditions and isolation from friends—could have lasting positive effects. Dr. Nooshin Razani, M.D., who runs the Center for Nature and Health at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in California, has done research on how park visits for children experiencing trauma like abuse, poverty or catastrophic circumstances can buffer the negative effects of those, improve health outcomes and create resilience, including the ability to handle and regulate stress over a lifetime.
Several studies suggest spending time outdoors also provides an added sense of well-being specifically for women. According to REI’s National Study on Women in the Outdoors, time in nature serves as an escape from the pressures unique to women in everyday life (i.e. conforming to expectations about weight, appearance, demeanor, etc., and putting in longer hours on the job, childcare and housework), even before the added pressures of COVID-19 restrictions. Studies also show that women need a longer exposure time to nature to see a measurable stress reduction—which is why, explains Dr. Razani, women shouldn’t feel that taking time outside is an indulgent or extra thing to do, but rather a critical component of overall health.
Dr. Keith Tidball, PhD, author of Greening in the Red Zone and an expert on nature’s role in building resilience in humans after large-scale traumas, believes part of the reason that going outside is such a good fit for the current situation is because connection to nature fulfills a deep evolutionary need. “We spent thousands and thousands of years among the rest of nature, that’s how we were designed,” he says. “It’s only in the last couple hundred years that we’ve become separate from it. But we’re compelled to affiliate with nature, which comes to the fore with urgency in times of crisis, because we associate nature with the healing aspects of hope and optimism.”
Tidball says that even those who can’t or don’t feel comfortable going outside can still benefit from these healing aspects: it can be as simple as planting a seed for an indoor garden, for example. “The very idea of planting a seed is optimism. Get the seed starter going, plant optimism in your life and start cultivating it to survive this moment.”
We don’t need a sweeping national forest or even a city park to experience the benefits of nature. SImply getting outside, seeing what the weather is like, and breathing deeply can provide relief. It should also be noted that many experience barriers to accessing this kind of “traditional nature” anyway. One study found that predominantly white neighborhoods have 11 times more green space than neighborhoods where 40% of residents are an ethnic minority, and affluent suburbs are more likely to have an above-average quantity of green space. The Trust for Public Land estimates that 100 million people in the U.S., including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk from home.
“This current crisis has exposed enormous preventable health disparities that exist across communities in this country,” said Dr. Muqueeth, DrPH, MPH, is Director of Community Health at The Trust for Public Land. “In order to drive towards health equity, we must improve the contexts in which our most vulnerable community members live, learn, work and play. Ensuring that everyone lives within an easy 10-minute walk of a quality park is an important part of that equation.”
In the face of these barriers, Dr. Razani recommends outdoor alternatives such as a walk down an urban street, playing in a tiny plot of grass on a city sidewalk or even looking up at the sky. All of these options can offer the same mental and physical benefits (in fact, one study showed that even looking out a window at trees can lower stress levels), and they’re much more widely accessible to people across socio-economic and geographic spectrums.
“I hope we come out of this with more of an appreciation for the outdoors and what they provide for all of us,” said Land Tawney, president and CEO of the conservation organization Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “Ultimately, we all need access to green spaces, whether it’s Missoula, Montana or the heart of Minneapolis.”