The Health Benefits of Nature (Ecotherapy)

The Health Benefits of Nature- how spending time outdoors can help you sleep better lose weight and see better

We’ve all craved nature at some time or another. Maybe it was the white sands of a beach (and the accompanying health benefits) that we longed for, or the calmness of a mountain camping trip.

Perhaps we look forward to a hike in the woods, or a canoe trip on a river… whatever our preferences, we all desire nature at some point, and with good reason.

The Benefits of Nature

It seems intuitive that we like to spend time outdoors, but science has now identified some of the reasons we actually NEED time in a more natural setting. In fact, there is a term for this- Ecotherapy – that refers to the various physical and psychological benefits of being outside.

A 2009 study found that the closer someone lived to a green space or nature area, the healthier that person was likely to be. In fact, those who lived closest to a park, nature preserve or wooded area were less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression.

Another study found that those who spent time hiking or resting in a forest had measurably lower cortisol rates, heart rates and blood pressure. (1)

The University of Illinois conducted research that showed that children with ADD/ADHD experienced a reduction of symptoms after spending time outdoors (this ties in with a less well-studied theory that these disorders are at least partially “nature deficit disorders:”

In their most recent study, conducted on a nationwide scale, psychologists Andrea Taylor and Frances Kuo have found that children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder, or ADHD, experienced a significant reduction in symptoms after they participated in activities in green settings. Whatever the activity—whether it was playing basketball or reading a book—the degree of relief from ADHD symptoms was tied to the greenness of the setting in which it took place, with relatively green settings like tree-lined streets, backyards and parks trumping the indoors or outdoor places that lacked greenery.(2)

Of course, just spending time in nature won’t be a silver bullet for children struggling with ADD/ADHD, but spending some (free!) family time outdoors is worth a try.

Other studies have found sleep improvements, better immune system function, and lower rates of stress related disorders in those who spent regular time in nature.

All of these factors may be reasons that regular gardeners live longer and that the practice of “forest bathing” (spending time in the forest) has become popular in Japan and is even prescribed and covered by medical plans in some cases. (3)

So why is nature so important?

There are several factors that may contribute to the health benefits (though the true benefit may remain an intangible that we can instinctively feel but not explain)…

How Time Outdoors Makes Us Healthier

Have you ever been cooped up indoors for an extended period of time and just felt the need to get outside? Turns out there some health reasons for this craving, including:

Vitamin D

One reason time outdoors may contribute to health is the exposure to Vitamin D producing sunlight. This vital pre-hormone is responsible for many aspects of health throughout the body.

Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to various types of cancer and obesity, as well as mental disorders and other health problems.

Though supplemental Vitamin D is available, some people don’t absorb it effectively (like me) and actually need sun exposure to get adequate Vitamin D.

Either way…spending time outdoors in moderate sun is a great way to get natural Vitamin D.

Exercise

Unless your version of spending time in nature involves driving into the woods and just sitting there, most nature experiences also include some form of exercise.

From rock climbing, swimming, hiking, an canoeing, most forms of outdoor activity also include movement.

We all know the benefits of exercise, yet most of us still aren’t getting enough exercise regularly. Spending time outdoors provides a chance for fun movement along with the other benefits of nature.

Since we should all be moving each day anyway, get the double benefit and get your exercise outdoors!

Grounding

This benefit of nature is somewhat controversial in modern medicine, and my post about it has gotten a wide range of comments, from those who swear by the benefits of grounding to those who insist it is completely made up.

The basic theory is that since many of us don’t come into direct skin contact with the Earth very much, a positive charge can build up in the body. Direct skin contact with the Earth acts as a “ground” just like it does for electrical outlets, reducing this extra positive charge.

Proponents of earthing report that it helps reduce inflammation in the body and improve sleep quality.

Whatever your opinion of earthing/grounding, it is another positive side effect of being outdoors, especially barefoot or swimming in a natural body of water.

Can’t Get Outdoors?

There are ways to get the benefits of grounding indoors with earthing mats or sheets.

Fresh Air

Indoor air is often up to 70 times more contaminated than outdoor air. With more air-tight insulation, windows and doors, and the plethora of chemicals and plastics we bring into our homes, most people come in contact with up to 6,000 chemicals regularly.

Spending time outdoors is a break from indoor air pollution and outdoor air may have additional benefits as well.

Outdoor air is a good source of beneficial negative ions and places like the beach and near waterfalls are especially good sources. These negative ions are also present in sunlight and after a thunderstorm, when you can smell the “freshness” in the air. Indoor air, by contrast, is deficient in negative ions and is often dry and contaminated.

Negative ions are referred to as “nature’s antidepressants” and are found to have a relaxing and healing effect.

Stuck indoors? Try these tips to help improve indoor air quality or consider getting some air-improving houseplants.

Eye Health

This is an often surprising benefit of spending time outdoors, and an increasingly important one.

We are seeing an increase in vision problems, especially in children. One possible reason is the amount of time that many of us spend looking at a computer or TV screen on a daily basis.

While children used to spend most of their time outdoors looking at a wide variety of colors, levels of brightness and depths, they now spend up to seven hours a day starting at a TV, computer or tablet screen with artificial light. The result is an increase in nearsightedness, even in kids who aren’t genetically predisposed to it.

In fact, a study done in 2007 found that children who spent at least 2 hours a day outside were four times less likely to be nearsighted.(4) For children, this has especially dire consequences. The researchers speculated that bright outdoor light helps children develop the correct distance between retina and lens and leads to better eyesight later in life. Since indoor lighting does not provide the same benefit, children who spend a lot of time indoors are much more likely to have vision problems later in life.

Staring at a screen can also lead to eye fatigue, headaches, neck or back problems and other problems in adults.

Healthy Circadian Rhythm

Spending time outdoors, especially in morning sunlight, may help reduce the risk of obesity. In fact,a study at Northwestern University found that the earlier a study participant got morning sunlight, the lower than participant’s BMI.

This correlation remained strong even after researchers adjusted for exercise levels, age, calorie intake and other factors that affect BMI. The reason? Getting sunlight in the morning helps keep cortisol levels and circadian rhythms in the right ranges.

The reverse correlation was also true, as exposure to light at night was a factor in gaining weight (another reason to make sure you have a dark sleep environment),  but as little as half an hour of sun exposure before noon was enough to have an effect on reducing body weight.

This effect is so pronounced, in fact, that my doctor recommended morning sunlight exposure as part of my protocol to help improve my cortisol levels and thyroid health.

Does indoor light work?

Bright morning light outdoors is typically thousands of “lux” a measure of illuminance that is essentially one lumen per square meter. Indoor light is typically only measures a few hundred lux and doesn’t contain the broad spectrum of light needed to correctly support the body’s internal clock.

While things like 10,000 lux energy light lamps get closer to the level of outdoor brightness and are often used in the winter by those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, nothing beats the benefits of nature with true sunshine.

Best Way to Get the Benefits of Nature?

As you can tell, there are a lot of factors that may contribute to the benefits of nature, but we still may never understand completely why spending time outdoors has such profound psychological and physiological effects. We do know that time outdoors is important and that we aren’t getting enough.

There are things we can do to get partial benefits, but the best (and least expensive) option is just to get outside… in the morning… near trees.

My Solution?

Take a long morning walk (with my new puppy) on a greenway near our home where there are plenty of trees, wildflowers and even a small waterfall. I sometimes take my children on these walks, or I encourage them to spend time outdoors in the morning as well.

Gardening is another great way to get time outdoors, and spending time watering plants in the morning is a great way to get morning sunlight.

Whatever works for you, find a way to spend some time outdoors each day and take your family with you. Need some motivation?…

How being outside makes you healthier

How do you get the benefits of nature?

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Reader Comments

  1. I just met a very knowledgeable lady today at Whole Foods named Mary, who recommended your site. Such great information here. Thank you!

  2. I’ve not heard it put this way at all, but I personally believe in ‘wind therapy’, and even ‘temperature therapy’.

    Just as ‘brushing’ helps with toxins, I personally believe that the wind does something akin to brush therapy.

    I also find that my tolerance to temperature changes is more manageable when I am able to get out into nature for short periods of time, more frequently. If I am able to tolerate more ‘stress’ (from heat or cold), then something must have been made stronger, IMHO.

    Nothing scientific here, just thinking out loud.

    ……..

    That said, I’m a huge proponent of a Charlotte Mason education, and she was all about getting children outside, in the environment they were made for. Visual spatial development, cause and affect in space and time, sensory stimulations that cannot be matched ‘in lesson format’ and so much more are build it. Furthermore, if one knows anything about what they are doing, they can very readily turn a ‘bug siting’ into a math lesson, an English comp lesson (the easiest comp skills are descriptive ‘writing’, then they move on to narrative ‘writing’…. both of which are possible simply by rejoicing in ‘nature expolorations together’), a spelling lesson (it’s in there, for real……, learning to describe and remember the visual picture of a bug or a bird is very much like learning to spell words……: see the bird, hear the bird, name the bird: see the letter, hear the letter, name the letter: see the word, hear the word, name the word…., recognizing the word like a face in a crowd…., etc.), a lesson in logic (asking leading questions, modeling the questions after those found at the end of each lesson in Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study), etc., etc., etc.,

    And what’s good for the children, is good for the mama too! Mom might need to simplify meal prep and etc., but there’s *nothing* like the great outdoors for any of us, perhaps particularly for children.

    Some of them might need a bit of practice to learn to appreciate it, but they can build up to amazing levels of appreciation.

    If you’d like support and guidance in such pursuits with children in particular, find a Charlotte Mason support group near you, or online (personally, I recommend AmblesideOnline, but there are other great supports out there as well).

  3. I see you have an app, what about your loyal android followers?!

    Much love.

  4. Thank you for this post- I so agree- I just heard about grounding and want to try it. I have chronic inflammation and other health issues. But being among nature I definitely think has tons of benefits. My grandparents lived till their 90’s and I think it had a lot to do with how much time they spent outside in the garden. I know when I get outside and get some fresh air and sunlight I feel so much better!

  5. if i wake feeling bad i do earthing . for maybe 20 minutes and i feel better.

  6. Eye health – haven’t heard of that one, but it makes a lot of sense. Besides the park with my kiddos, i don’t get out in nature enough and it does so much for my mood. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

  7. We just came back from a week long camping trip as a family and strongly believe in all of this! I noticed as always so many changes in the way I felt and slept even the kids. We try to camp as much as possible! The fresh mountain air does a lot of good for everyone!

  8. This is good to know cause I have a four year old who has been diagnosed with a “true deficit disorder” what ever that is. The doctors put him on adderol and I don’t like him taking it so he doesn’t take it everyday. We live in an area where there is a national forest all around us. And our road dead ends into a river. I don’t know why I haven’t used this to my advantage but I will now. Just for the purpose of seeing if it helps with his symptoms. Oh by the way the coconut oil I’m my coffee is what brought me to your site as well as the oil pulling.