The energizing scent of damp earth after rainfall and the crunch of leaves underfoot. The tranquil silence of the sprawling desert and the colorful interruption of cacti blooming from cracked earth.
Nature is endlessly fascinating, but how much time do you spend outdoors absorbing its beauty? Sadly, it’s likely just a sliver of your time. According to one study, as Americans, we spend about 93% of our lives indoors.
This Earth Day, let’s change that. Not only because spending time in nature can help nurture a greater appreciation for the planet and a deeper desire to protect it, but because it also fosters wellness. And no, we’re not referring to the health benefits of outdoor, physical activities like hiking, swimming, and skiing. Simply standing outside, immersed in the natural world, and using all our senses to connect with it can have positive effects on our wellbeing.
In fact, you’ve probably already experienced nature’s ability to reduce stress levels. If you live in a busy, urban area, time spent strolling through an evergreen forest or observing lily pads as they float lazily down a river can be a welcome break from the air pollution, noise, and traffic intrinsic to city life. Activities like these can also encourage us to physically step away from stressful situations at work or home, and put down our devices to enjoy distraction and blue light-free time. Plus, taking a moment to notice and appreciate the beauty of nature—from birds singing and soaring through cloud-speckled skies to the pleasant sensation of warm raindrops landing with a splash on your skin—facilitates mindfulness, a skill that can reduce stress while also increasing concentration, mental clarity, and tolerance.
Nature can be a retreat from our everyday lives, yes, but that’s not the only reason it has a powerful impact on our stress levels. Phytoncides—the aromatic oils that plants and trees release—also play a part. While phytoncides help flora protect themselves against bacteria, insects, and fungi, they help humans by decreasing the levels of stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline in our bodies.
Don’t forget, stress impacts the immune system’s ability to function, making us more susceptible to illness. This means that spending time outdoors can benefit our physical health as well as our mental wellbeing. In fact, phytoncides have also been shown to boost the activity of anti-cancer proteins and natural killer cells, which help defend our bodies against bacteria, viruses, and tumors. More generally, enjoying the great outdoors has been found to help reduce blood pressure and heart rate, and increase the level of the hormone adiponectin in our bodies, lower levels of which are associated with conditions like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Moreover, exposure to sunlight leads to the creation and activation of vitamin D which can assist in calcium absorption, support immune function, and fight conditions like osteoporosis and heart disease.
However, these health benefits are not a new discovery, and spending time in nature has long been celebrated as a valuable wellness activity around the world. For example, the Japanese practice of “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing” refers to surrounding yourself with trees and forestry, and was even promoted as part of a government campaign in 1982. More recently, doctors have begun writing “nature prescriptions'' that recommend outdoor activities to patients with conditions like anxiety, obesity, and high blood pressure. Washington D.C. pediatrician Dr. Robert Zarr founded Park Rx America, a website that makes it easier for doctors to prescribe time in nature to their patients, back in 2017, and doctors on Scotland’s Shetland Islands began this practice in 2018.
But you don’t need an official nature prescription to experience Mother Nature’s benefits. To reap the rewards of phytoncides you can simply find a green space like a park or forest and spend a few hours connecting with the environment. You could walk slowly around the space and use all your senses to pay special attention to your surroundings. If an afternoon of walking doesn’t work for you, try breathing exercises, practicing yoga, or simply sitting down on the ground! Time in the forest is also a fantastic opportunity to explore the art of earthing. Also called grounding, earthing is the practice of placing your bare feet on the earth—like walking barefoot along the grass. It’s thought that by making this direct connection, we can tap into the earth’s subtle electrical charges to neutralize free radicals and reduce inflammation.
Surrounded by skyscrapers rather than sunflowers and sycamores? Don’t worry -- you don’t have to miss out on the many benefits of time spent in nature. Simply hanging a photograph of a stunning natural scene like Yosemite Falls or the Florida Keys on your wall can benefit your health. Research has shown that even gazing at images of nature can reduce stress levels. To enjoy the effects of phytoncides without leaving your home, adopt an indoor plant or diffuse essential oils, like hinoki oil distilled from Japanese cypress trees, to bring the outdoors to you.
This Earth Day, we challenge you to spend a little time outdoors. Just half an hour can be a powerfully positive step in your wellness journey.