By Dr. Mercola
Spending time in nature is important for physical and mental health, but more than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas,1 which can limit access to green spaces.
Research conducted in the Netherlands in 2001 revealed people report fewer health complaints and better mental health when they're in a greener environment.2 Further, all types of green space – city parks, agricultural areas, forest, etc. – were equally beneficial. As reported by The Trust for Public Land:3
"The benefits extend to psychological health. 'The concept that plants have a role in mental health is well established,' according to a review of previous studies by Howard Frumkin in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
"Horticultural therapy evolved as a form of mental health treatment, based on the therapeutic effects of gardening. It is also used today in community-based programs, geriatrics programs, prisons, developmental disabilities programs, and special education."4
Further, 'research on recreational activities has shown that savanna-like settings are associated with self-reported feelings of 'peacefulness,' 'tranquility,' or 'relaxation,'' Frumkin writes.
"Viewing such settings leads to decreased fear and anger…[and] is associated with enhanced mental alertness, attention, and cognitive performance, as measured by tasks such as proofreading and by formal psychological testing."
Such benefits also extend to children, among whom researchers recently unveiled a promising benefit of adding green spaces to schools.
Green Spaces in Schools May Boost Cognitive Development
In a study of 2,600 children between the ages of 7 and 10, those with greater exposure to green spaces, particularly while at school, had improved working memory and decreased inattentiveness.5
During a one-year period, children exposed to significant green spaces had a 5 percent increase in the development of working memory and a 1 percent decrease in inattentiveness.
A large part of the benefit (anywhere from 20 percent to 65 percent) was attributed to a reduction in exposure to air pollution as a result of the green spaces.
Access to nature and the outdoors also increases physical activity and reduces noise exposures, which are also beneficial for mental health. There's also past research that suggests "microbial input" from spending time in nature plays a role in brain development.6
A 2014 study similarly found that children attending schools with greater amounts of vegetation scored higher on academic tests in both English and math.7 The researchers of the current study explained:8
"Contact with nature is thought to play a crucial and irreplaceable role in brain development… Natural environments including green spaces provide children with unique opportunities such as inciting engagement, risk-taking, discovery, creativity, mastery and control, strengthening sense of self, inspiring basic emotional states including sense of wonder, and enhancing psychological restoration."
5 More Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
A trip to a park, nature preserve, river trail, local farm, or any other natural space can benefit children and adults alike – so much so that you should really strive to spend time in a "green" space each and every day. Such benefits include:9
1. Improving Focus
Among children with ADHD, spending time in nature leads to improvements in focus and higher scores on concentration tests. Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, even used the term "nature-deficit disorder" to describe behavioral problems he believes stem from spending less time outdoors.10
2. Boosting Creativity
One study found walking increased 81 percent of participants' creativity, but walking outside produced "the most novel and highest quality analogies."11
3. Getting More Out of Your Workouts
"Green exercise," which is exercise in the presence of nature, has unique benefits above and beyond indoor exercise. One meta-analysis of 10 studies found that physical activity outdoors for as little as five minutes leads to measurable improvements in mood and self-esteem.12
In addition to boosting your mood, outdoor exercise can be more challenging, leading to greater physical gains. For instance, if you walk, jog or cycle outdoors, you'll have to expend more energy to overcome wind and changes in terrain.13
There's even research showing levels of the stress hormone cortisol are lower when people exercise outdoors as opposed to indoors.14
4. Less Pain and Better Sleep
Older adults who spend more time outdoors have less pain, sleep better and have less functional decline in their ability to carry out their daily activities.15 According to research published in Biopsychosocial Medicine:16
"The healing power of nature, vis medicatrix naturae, has traditionally been defined as an internal healing response designed to restore health.
Almost a century ago, famed biologist Sir John Arthur Thomson provided an additional interpretation of the word nature within the context of vis medicatrix, defining it instead as the natural, non-built external environment.
He maintained that the healing power of nature is also that associated with mindful contact with the animate and inanimate natural portions of the outdoor environment.
…With global environmental concerns, rapid urban expansion, and mental health disorders at crisis levels, diminished nature contact may not be without consequence to the health of the individual and the planet itself."
5. Increasing Your Vitamin D Levels
Spending time in nature allows kids and adults plenty of sun exposure to build and maintain their vitamin D levels. Increasing your vitamin D levels is important, as researchers have pointed out that increasing levels of vitamin D3 among the general population could prevent chronic diseases that claim nearly one million lives throughout the world each year.
Incidence of several types of cancer could also be slashed in half. Vitamin D also fights infections, including colds and the flu, as it regulates the expression of genes that influence your immune system to attack and destroy bacteria and viruses.
I firmly believe appropriate sun exposure is the best way to optimize your vitamin D levels, and the more time you spend outdoors, the easier it will be for you to naturally keep your vitamin D levels in the therapeutic range of 50-70 ng/ml.
Spending Time in Green Spaces Contributes to Improved Well-Being
According to research published in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, children who spent five to 10 hours a week outside developed a strong attachment to nature, a value that is important to both human development and well-being.17
Children who spent a lot of time outdoors also experienced a wealth of positive emotions, including peacefulness, happiness, and a sense of belonging to the world. As you might suspect, parents of children with the strongest connections to nature also spent a lot of time outdoors during childhood, engaging in experiences that they believe helped to shape their adult lives and spirituality.
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) even compiled a revealing list of facts that shows just how important outdoor time in green space is for children… and how detrimental removing this inherent connection to nature may be.18
For the record, nature's benefits don't discriminate. They're equally relevant to children and adults alike, with research showing people with access to nature have better health, increased levels of satisfaction, lower stress, and greater well-being.
Outdoor play increases fitness levels, fights obesity, and builds healthy bodies. Spending time outside raises levels of vitamin D, helping to protect children from heart disease, diabetes, bone problems, and more. Time outdoors improves distance vision and lowers the chance of nearsightedness. Schools with environmental education programs score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing, and listening. Exposure to environment-based education improves students' critical thinking skills. Children's stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces. Play protects children's emotional development while loss of free time and a hurried lifestyle may lead to anxiety and depression. Nature makes people nicer, enhances social interactions, and improves value for community and close relationships.
The Impact of Green Space on Your Brain
Connecting with nature can help your mental health in a myriad of ways. A systematic review examined the impact of gardens and outdoor spaces on the mental and physical well-being of people with dementia, for instance. The research suggested that garden use, whether it be watering plants, walking through a garden or sitting in one, lead to decreased levels of agitation or anxiety among the patients.19 Interestingly, while spending time in a green garden may help relieve some dementia symptoms, it may also help to reduce your risk of developing dementia in the first place. As reported by CNN:20
"Two separate studies that followed people in their 60s and 70s for up to 16 years found, respectively, that those who gardened regularly had a 36 percent and 47 percent lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners, even when a range of other health factors were taken into account. These findings are hardly definitive, but they suggest that the combination of physical and mental activity involved in gardening may have a positive influence on the mind."
Meanwhile, Mycobacterium vaccae is a type of bacteria commonly found in soil. Remarkably, this microbe has been found to "mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide."21 It helps to stimulate serotonin production, helping to make you feel happier and more relaxed. In one animal study, mice that ingested Mycobacterium vaccae had a demonstrated reduction in anxiety and improved learning. The researchers noted that natural exposure to microbes by spending time outdoors may be important for emotional health and behavior: 22
"Recent studies show that contact with tolerogenic microbes is important for the proper functioning of immunoregulatory circuits affecting behavior, emotionality and health… Collectively, our results suggest a beneficial effect of naturally delivered, live M. vaccae on anxiety-related behaviors … supporting a positive role for ambient microbes in the immunomodulation of animal behavior."
Green Space Is Great for Grounding
The next time you go outdoors, take off your shoes and spend some time walking barefoot in the grass, sand or mud. The Earth carries an enormous negative charge. It's always electron-rich and can serve as a powerful and abundant supply of antioxidant and free-radical-busting electrons. Your body is finely tuned to "work" with the Earth in the sense that there's a constant flow of energy between your body and the Earth. When you put your bare feet on the ground, you absorb large amounts of negative electrons through the soles of your feet.
The effect is sufficient to maintain your body at the same negatively charged electrical potential as the Earth. This simple process is called "grounding" or "earthing," and its effect is one of the most potent antioxidants we know of. Grounding has been shown to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, improve sleep, enhance wellbeing, and much, much more. When you wear rubber- or plastic-soled shoes, however, you are effectively shielding yourself from this beneficial influx of electrons from the Earth.
Simply by getting outside, barefoot, touching the Earth, and allowing the excess charge in your body to discharge into the Earth, you can alleviate some of the stress continually put on your system. Walking barefoot can help ameliorate the constant assault of electromagnetic fields and other types of radiation from cell phones, computers, and Wi-Fi. It's also thought that grounding may actually facilitate the formation of structured water in your body.
Furthermore, grounding also calms your sympathetic nervous system, which supports your heart rate variability. And, when you support heart rate variability, this promotes homeostasis, or balance, in your autonomic nervous system. This is important because anytime you improve your heart rate variability, you're improving your entire body and all its functions.
Be a Role Model to Help Your Child Spend More Time in Green Spaces
Your kids are watching your every move, and if they see you enjoying the great outdoors, they will too. Encourage your children to engage in activities that are naturally interesting to them, such as playing on the monkey bars, rollerblading, skateboarding, playing basketball with friends, or helping you in the garden. Organized sports are great, but so are spontaneous romps through mud puddles, climbing trees, and spotting frogs in a nearby creek.
Opportunities to grow and appreciate nature are everywhere, so try to encourage your child's natural curiosity and sense of exploration by identifying birds on the way to the bus stop, talking about the insects you see around your yard, or helping your child plant a small flower or vegetable garden. Above all, resist the urge to overly structure your child's outdoor time, instead encouraging natural active play, time together as a family, as well as respect and appreciation for the outdoor world.