Want to Improve Your Health? Research Suggests Taking a “Nature Pill.”
New studies confirm that spending time outside can ease physical symptoms
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Studies continue to back up what we all feel: That going for a hike, a trail run, or a paddle around the lake makes us feel better. Even sitting outside in a grassy park seems to improve our mental health. But a recent Finnish study found that being in nature may actually improve our physical health as well.
Frequent visits to greenspaces were associated with less frequent use of psychotropic, antihypertensive and asthma medications, according to the study by The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare that analyzed results from more than 7,000 surveys. The findings, published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, suggest that spending time in nature may help improve symptoms related to hypertension, asthma, and depression. [Note: Speak with your doctor before you reduce or stop any medications.]
The study’s objective was to determine whether living within a kilometer of a greenspace (a park or trail) or a bluespace (a body of water) is associated with improved physical health among people living in urban environments. And while the findings supported that time spent in green and blue spaces correlated to decreased reliance on medications, simply being near outdoor spaces wasn’t enough. Staring out a window at a park or ocean, for instance, doesn’t cut it. Being out among the trees and smelling the salty sea air does.
How Outside Time Benefits Your Body
The effect of being among nature might even help fight cancer. A 2010 study had subjects spend three days and two nights in forested areas, with researchers sampling their blood and urine before and after. They found an increase in Natural Killer (NK) cells known to fight tumors after the trip–a health benefit that lasted longer than 30 days.
It’s not just sunshine and fresh air that’s beneficial. We need nature’s microbes for our health. Study findings from 2013 pointed to the fact that microbial input from the environment—which the study refers to as “Old Friends” on an evolutionary level—drive our immunoregulation.
A Prescription for Getting Outdoors
Evolution has brought us effective modern medicines, but it has also sent us all inside to stare at computer screens. Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that we’ve lost many of the beneficial exposures to the natural world that we received organically when our society was more agrarian. The average American spends 93% of their time indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
So today, doctors in 35 U.S. states can officially prescribe nature as medicine to their patients, according to the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. National organizations are supporting the idea that outside time is an effective “medical” treatment. Park Rx America provides templates that help doctors write “prescriptions” that meet the specific needs of their patients, with email or text reminders to “fill” those prescriptions. The nonprofit Walk With a Doc helps healthcare providers set up community walking groups.
Adding Outside Time to Your Day
Do you need to go on a three-day backpacking trip every month to get these kinds of benefits? Nope. A 2018 study found that college students who spend just five minutes outdoors on a park bench reported improved mental health, while a 2019 study discovered 20 to 30 minutes of a “nature experience” reduced participants’ stress-related hormones by up to 28 percent.
How much and how often should we take a “nature pill” for optimal health?
“The true answer is we just don’t know the exact dose needed,” says Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, integrative medicine doctor, and author of The Outdoor Adventurer’s Guide to Forest Bathing (Falcon Guides, 2019). “It may be as simple as some nature exposure each day is good for our mental and physical health.”
NatureDose is an app that measures your therapeutic time in nature. Set your weekly goal, then go outside and feel good. Download NatureDose here.