Being green is good for your health

Why Saving the Planet Can Help You Live Longer

This year’s crazy weather trends and meteorological terms (“atmospheric river” anyone?) provide us with good food for thought as we ponder how to keep our planet happy and healthy. After all, Mother Nature provides a host of health benefits that can help us live longer, happier lives.

Here are a few reasons why actively supporting and preserving our natural environment can be a good move:

1) Actively supporting  nature benefits mental health and improves life satisfaction

A recent British study conducted by The University of Derby and the Wildlife Trusts encouraged participants to “do something wild” and interact with nature 30 consecutive days in a row – participating in activities such as feeding birds and planting flowers for bees.  More than 18,500 people participated in 300,000 random acts of “wildness”. The result? A scientifically significant improvement in people’s health, happiness, and connection to nature.

According to Dr. Miles Richardson, the head of psychology at the University of Derby, exposure to nature can reduce hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure), reduce respiratory tract and cardiovascular illnesses, improve energy and mood, help support mental wellbeing and decrease anxiety.  It can also restore attention capacity and prevent mental fatigue. Beyond all this, feeling at one with nature and supporting it has been shown to correlate highly with life satisfaction, happiness, mindfulness, and lower cognitive anxiety.

So if you’re feeling a little fried or stressed these days, taking some time to work with nature on a regular basis can be good for your physical health, good for your level of zen and help you feel happier overall.

Children benefit from being in nature more as well. It improves their self-esteem, teaches them how to take risks, encourages creativity, and gives them a chance to exercise.  In some cases it has been found that exposure to nature can help improve symptoms of ADHD by providing a calming environment that helps kids concentrate.

2) Access to natural environments reduces stress, improves cognition and helps heal

Even if you don’t have time to actively interact with nature, just being in green spaces and investing in their continued presence can have serious health benefits.

Dr. Bill Frist, a nationally recognized transplant surgeon, recently published an article in Forbes discussing how more exposure to nature and greenery can positively impact longevity. Frist points out that according to the New England Journal of Medicine, healthcare services are estimated to account for just 10% of a person’s longevity. Social and environmental factors account for 20%, genetics account for 30% and individual behaviors account for 40%. So what we surround ourselves with, and the choices they help influence, can determine whether we are living a healthy lifestyle that sets us up for long-term success.

Need some proof? A 2006 American Scientist study showed that the brain likes viewing stimulating natural scenes and finds them much more pleasurable than looking at a blank wall or an urban jungle full of concrete.  In fact, a study of children revealed that being in a high-stress, high-traffic environment, like a busy street, makes the brain stimulate cortisol production in the adrenal glands.  Elevated cortisol interferes with learning and memory, weakens your immune system and can cause weight gain, high blood pressure and heart disease. Exposure to nature can help counteract this.

Exposure to nature is also beneficial for people recovering after a hospital stay. Research done by Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center and the Harvard School of Public Health, found that stroke survivors in the greater Boston area had a 20% reduction in risk if they had more access to green spaces, vs not. Even views of nature from a recovery room make a difference. Nature heals.

3) Being in nature helps your body in so many ways – maybe even preventing cancer

Beyond the above benefits, there are many others ways that spending more time experiencing nature help your body and mind.

Moving around when you are outside helps keep your joints flexible, preventing stiffness and chronic pain.

You’re less likely to pick up viruses and cold germs when you’re out in nature, because the air outside is moving and fresh, not recycled air.  

Studies in multiple countries, such as Australia and Taiwan, have shown that children who spend a lot of time playing outdoors are less likely to struggle with nearsightedness (myopia) than peers who participate mostly in indoor play.

In Japan, people engage in a practice called “forest bathing” because of the health benefits of spending time in forests. Forest time has been shown to reduce inflammation (excessive inflammation is associated with a spectrum of health complications including autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, depression and cancer).  Preliminary research from Japanese studies notes that areas in Japan with greater forest coverage have lower mortality rates from a spectrum of cancers, and that spending time in forest can stimulate the production of anti-cancer proteins, with these proteins staying at boosted levels for up to seven days after a relaxing trip to the woods.

So getting out there and hugging some trees can be good for your health. Literally.

4) Experiencing nature makes you want to connect more with other people

Last, but not least, being in nature helps people feel more connected to their fellow human beings. Numerous recent articles call out that people spend more and more time in front of screens large and small these days. The challenge with spending a lot of time on your computer or mobile device is that too much screen time can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, often leading to a loss of empathy and altruism. Some studies claim that excessive screen time can even be deadly.

Consider the bright side of spending a little more time with nature, and a little less time with your glowing screens:  recent field studies showed that people who have more exposure to green spaces feel more connected to each other. It’s actually proven brain science. When fMRI technology is used to monitor brain activity, it shows that when people view nature scenes, the parts of their brain that are associated with love and empathy light up. Conversely, when they view urban scenes, the parts of their brain associated with fear and anxiety start firing up. It turns out nature actually makes us want to share the love and connect with other more, which is good for our mental health — and a good reason to pocket your smartphone for a while when you go on your next group hike.

So don’t forget to get out there and not only appreciate, but help, Mother Nature. Taking in the sights and sounds of calming landscapes and natural noise will keep you healthier, less stressed, and help your brain function at its best. It’s a win-win for you, and for the planet.

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