Stop what you’re doing. Get up. Walk outside. Chances are, depending on where you are at the time, you will immediately feel a little bit better—your mood may lighten, your thoughts may free up and your perspective may shift just a bit. Physical movement and change of light alone can account for some of this, but something more is involved when we move from the physically sedentary but emotionally hectic space and pace of the built world out into the natural world.
More and more research is being done on the health benefits of spending time in nature. Of course, the idea that nature heals is not a new concept or a recent discovery. It is simply something that we seem to have forgotten along the way. Studies show that the average contemporary American spends a surprising 90% of the time indoors, with this increasing as an individual ages . So our arrival at such a condition has left us with nowhere to go but back to where we began—nature.
In fact, we have been so far removed from the outdoors that even five minutes of “green exercise”—any exercise practiced outdoors in the natural environment—has been found to improve self-esteem and mood. Also, the simple fact of being outside naturally leads to an increase in movement. No longer confined to a small space, often a desk, we are more inclined to explore and play. Some studies show that simply having a window outside one’s hospital bed hastens recovery and improves overall health, and a growing trend in landscape architecture is to design therapeutic garden spaces accessible to all.
Another advantage of being outside results from the absorption of vitamin D. Our skin can take in high doses from exposure to the sun, which is a much more effective source than the supplement form. The benefits of increased levels of vitamin D include prevention against cancer, osteoporosis, heart attacks and strokes as well as other diseases, not to mention depression . Light levels alone affect brain chemicals related to mood and sleep, and of course better sleep again improves one’s mood. Sunlight is not only much more intense than artificial light, but is also full spectrum. The range of color and intensity as the days and seasons cycle directly effects our mood and energy.
The concept of nature and gardens as therapeutic and restorative is ancient. The Chinese Taoists created gardens and greenhouses over two thousand years ago based on the belief that they were beneficial to health. In the late 17th century, the book, English Gardener, described spending time in one’s garden as a means to preserve health. The first garden club in America was created in Athens, GA in 1891 as a way to increase the health of its members. Today, there are niches within landscape architecture, horticulture and gardening specifically focused on therapeutic landscapes.
Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing , a term coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in the 1990s, is now part of the foundation of preventative health care, and this idea is spreading. Antimicrobial compounds from the essential oils of trees have been found to increase relaxation. Short, periodic visits to the living spaces created by canopies of trees have been found to have the same effects on wellness described above. As this time becomes more regular, the benefits have been found to include increased flow of energy, deeper intuition, an increase in the quality of relationships and overall increase in happiness.
In short, we’re getting back to our roots, so to speak, and living longer, richer lives, thanks to the trees and all they offer. The trunks and branches that we see above ground, as well as the subterranean, cooperative root systems together create a habitat for species visible and invisible to the human eye. Layer upon interconnected layer mingle within the ecosystem producing a physical environment full of sights, sounds, smells and a tangible essence that engages us at our core. All we have to do is be there.