Natural Effects

Dailan Pugh, Environmentalist and Artist
You know that exercise is good for you, though did you know its health benefits are greatly magnified if undertaken in a forest? Just standing in a forest taking in the view can improve your mood and cognitive function. Even sitting in a chair looking at a photo of the view is good for you.

And it is not just seeing nature that is beneficial, hearing it helps and smelling it is a form of aromatherapy that has been attributed with improving health and wellbeing.

Natural settings also provide opportunities for spiritual experiences, enhancing self-esteem, facilitating socialisation and encouraging optimal development in children.

A walk in the bush is not a cure all, but it is good for you in many ways.

Throughout most of human evolution we have lived within natural environments and thus had an intimate relationship with nature, making people physiologically and psychologically adapted to nature. Most people are now separated from the natural world on a daily basis. It is argued that people have a biologically based need to affiliate with and feel connected to the natural world: the term biophilia is used to describe “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life” (Wilson 1984).

There is a belief that our divorce from nature may be having adverse effects on our well-being, and there is increasing evidence that interactions with nature for recreation and enjoyment do have a multitude of beneficial effects.

A review was undertaken of 116 scientific papers investigating the affects that nature has on people. They provide abundant evidence that exposure to natural environments reduces most people’s psychological and physiological (i.e. pulse rate, blood pressure, cortisol, salivary amylase, adrenaline) indicators of stress, while improving their mood and happiness. The experience can overcome mental fatigue and restore cognitive function.

To varying extents, significant effects have been found to result from a trek through a wilderness, a walk in the park, looking at views, looking at paintings or photographs, and even from the anticipation of a visit to a forest. Views of trees from hospital windows have been found to foster faster recovery from surgery, though it is a walk in a forest that has the greatest health benefits.

A walk through a forest influences people’s well-being through our senses of sight, hearing, and smell. Organic particles suspended in the air appear to be particularly influential. Trees remove human pollutants and contribute beneficial bacteria, negatively-charged ions and phytoncides to the air we breathe. Phytoncides are organic compounds that plants produce to communicate between themselves and with other organisms.

Japanese studies of ‘forest air-bathing’ (Shinrin-yoku) show that as we walk among the trees we breathe in phytoncides, taking in their health benefits as a form of natural aromatherapy. There is growing evidence that, as well as contributing to stress reduction, various phytoncides can affect our health by improving our cardiovascular system, strengthening our endocrine and immune systems, enhancing anti-cancer proteins and reducing blood sugars.

Nature experiences can invoke wonder and awe, whether it is encountering a massive ancient tree, an unusual encounter with an animal, seeing a spectacular scene, or being immersed in a wilderness remote from civilisation. Such experiences can create deep emotional and spiritual experiences – a momentary loss of sense-of-self, immersion in the present moment, a sense of harmony with the world – which sometimes can be life changing.

The natural environment can provide many physical challenges, from a child climbing a tree to an adult scaling a mountain. Overcoming the risk, fear and uncertainty associated with particularly challenging activities in nature can have significant and long-lasting effects on self-esteem.

Natural environments have been found to encourage more altruistic and cooperative behaviour, whether from watching a video, a walk in the park or a hike through wilderness. In America, adventure recreation in wilderness areas has long been used to foster greater self esteem, sense of community and long-term cooperative behaviours, particularly for troubled youths.

Whether we subconsciously seek connections with the natural world is a moot point, as there is abundant evidence that experiencing nature is beneficial to our health and wellbeing. A walk in a forest makes you feel better, improves your health and is likely to be doing far more good than you realise.

Find a forest, breathe deeply, relax and let nature help heal your body and mind.

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