If you’ve hiked the state’s parks or biked the rail trails, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in usage. During the pandemic, 45 percent of adults living in the Northeast reported increasing time spent in nature or outdoors, according to a study by a UConn professor. We may be drawn to the outdoors for the pretty scenery and fresh air, but it’s also good for our health.
Interacting with nature benefits physical health, psychological well-being, cognitive ability and social cohesion, studies show. And it doesn’t take much. In fact, a study involving 20,000 people in England showed people spending just two hours a week outdoors in forests, parks or other green spaces reported higher health and well-being levels than those who spent no time in nature or less than two hours a week. The benefits are the same, whether taken in one two-hour chunk or spread out over the week, and whether exercising or sitting.
Spending time in nature doesn’t require a trip to a state park. While most studies have compared time outdoors to time in urban settings, a few have quantified the psychological benefits of different types of nature, says Susan A. Masino, professor of applied science at Trinity College. “Gardening is definitely beneficial and its own type of immersion. They have even found a soil microbe … that seems to have antidepressant qualities,” she says.
How does time spent in nature impact our bodies and minds? It lowers blood pressure, stress hormone levels, anxiety and pulse rate and improves mood. Due to the pandemic, people have reported feeling higher levels of depression and anxiety, found Damion J. Grasso, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UConn Health.
Studies involving those with a specific diagnosis reinforced findings from general population research. For example, a recent study found psychiatric patients who spent time gardening reported reduced feelings of isolation, improved moods, sense of calm and better social behavior. Another study with people with dementia found depression levels decreased by 10 percent, quality of life improved by 10 percent and agitation levels were cut in half after people spent time in a therapeutic garden. Even guided imagery, where someone closes their eyes and visualizes walking through a forest or on a beach, hearing the sounds and smelling the air can help people with migraine headaches treat the headache and cope with pain, says Dr. Deena Kuruvilla, a board-certified neurologist and director of the Westport Headache Institute. “Being in nature, experiencing nature, can be an effective way to complement the mainstream treatment that your doctor is giving you [for migraines],” she says.
Even being indoors and observing nature through a window, looking at photos of natural settings, listening to the sounds of nature, smelling fresh air or having a plant can be beneficial, Masino adds. “Any way to pull in a little bit of connection to nature adds up.” Natural settings have a way of relaxing us not just because of how they look, but because of the sounds, smells and feel of a breeze or the warm sun. The whole is always best, Masino says, adding that the multi-sensory experience of forest bathing has been shown to have significant health benefits. “If you need to be on a call for work, or listening to a recording, and that is the only time you can get out in nature, do it,” she says. “There are a lot of people working from home now who may be able to spend bits of time here and there working from the woods. And these little bits of respite, small doses of nature, are a great benefit of the pandemic-induced shift in work culture.”
Pediatricians prescribe time in nature to their patients using the Park Rx app that locates green spaces near a patient’s ZIP code, including Dr. Leslie Sude, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine and a Fair Haven Community Health Care pediatrician. Only about 30 percent of patients for whom she prescribed time in parks have reported “filling” the prescription, but the response from patients and their parents has been enthusiastic, she says. “Some patients need the added layer of a prescribed activity and the endorsement from a pediatrician which lends a sense of importance to the activity,” Sude says. She suggests parents spend time in nature with their children. She understands the pandemic leaves working parents even more squeezed, and the prescription for time in nature “creates an opportunity for them to spend time together away from technology and media.”
The U.S. health care system is set up to pay doctors to treat rather than prevent problems, but Bradford S. Gentry, professor in the practice of forest resources and management policy at the Yale School of the Environment, is working to change that. It would be better for people’s health, Gentry says, if they spent more time in nature to prevent mental and physical health conditions from deepening.