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5 ways nature is good for your health

By Josh Harris, Physician Assistant, Pardee UNC Health Care

Have you been feeling stressed out, tired and anxious lately? If so, you’re not alone. The stress of the pandemic has affected all of us in various ways. The good news is you can get some relief by stepping outside and spending time in nature.

Research shows that the great outdoors is wonderful for your health. Observing trees, plants, bodies of water, wildlife and birds can have a calming effect on your body, mind and spirit. Time in nature also gives you a chance to disconnect from your devices and reconnect to something greater than yourself. Here are just a few of nature’s powerful mental and physical health benefits.

1. Nature improves your overall well-being

According to a 2019 study, spending two or more hours per week outdoors improved the health and well-being of study participants. Additional research has found that natural surroundings can:

  • Improve sleep
  • Boost energy
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Support immune system health

2. Nature can boost your mood

If you’re having a bad day, lace up your sneakers and go for a quick walk outside. Spending time outdoors has been shown to improve symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.

Nature can also help you combat negative thinking: One study showed that a 90-minute nature walk reduced brain activity related to negative thoughts.

3. Spending time outdoors can reduce stress

According to research, a 20-minute walk outside reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

4. Nature can improve your relationships

Spending time outside has been shown to inspire positive social behaviors like generosity and empathy (being able to understand and share someone else’s feelings).

Nature can also help you feel connected to something greater than yourself, providing you with some perspective on your life.

5. Nature supports brain health

Studies have shown that being exposed to natural surroundings helps people improve short-term memory and imagery processing. Research has also found that children’s cognitive development improved when their schools were near green spaces.

Other studies have found that nature can improve cognitive flexibility (the ability to switch between tasks), attentional control (the ability to control what you pay attention to) and working memory.

Ways to spend more time outdoors

It’s easy to go days or weeks with very little outdoor activity. However, there are many free, easy ways to reconnect with nature. Here are some ideas to add to your daily or weekly routine:

  • Incorporate nature into your weekend plans. When planning your weekend, schedule at least one outdoor activity, such as a hike, birdwatching expedition or picnic.
  • Take your meals outside. Rather than sitting indoors, dine on your porch, a park bench or a restaurant patio.
  • Enjoy your favorite activities al fresco. Sit outside while you read your favorite page-turner, listen to the radio on the porch, meet a friend for a walk outside instead of lunch or take a stroll while catching up with loved ones on the phone.
  • Mix up your workouts. If you’re ready for a change in your exercise routine, consider taking your workouts outdoors. There are so many forms of physical activity you can do outside: walking, running, hiking, cycling, yoga, weight training or calisthenics.
  • Try forest bathing. Forest bathing is a popular practice in Japan and involves walking mindfully, quietly and slowly through a natural setting. The practice serves as a form of meditation and can help relieve feelings of burnout and stress.

Now that cooler temperatures are here, set a goal of spending at least 30 minutes outside each week. Our region is full of gorgeous scenery that will calm, inspire and restore your mind, body and spirit.

If you have questions about your mental or physical health, talk to your primary care provider or find a provider near you.

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