Connecting With Nature Improves Minds and Moods
By Marlene Cimons
Twentieth Century German social psychologist Erich Fromm first advanced the notion that humans hold an inborn connection to nature. Later, it was popularized by biologist E.O. Wilson as "the urge to affiliate with other forms of life." In the ensuing years, support for the positive effects of nature has gained considerable traction, grounded in a growing body of research.
In recent weeks, at least four new studies have emerged adding more validity to what science repeatedly has revealed: Being around nature is good for us. The latest research shows that interacting with nature makes the brain stronger and soothes the psyche.
One study, for example, found healthy brain changes among elderly city dwellers who live near forests. Another showed positive effects of exposure to residential green spaces on the attention span of children. A third suggested that even a brief encounter with something natural—the aforementioned little flower, for example—can elevate one's mood. Finally, another study concluded that there are certain outdoor places—rural and coastal areas—that make people happier than other locations, such as urban gardens or parks.
Collectively, the work sends a powerful message about Mother Nature as a valuable resource for human health. Moreover, it underscores the importance of protecting the environment at a time when it has come under increasing stress from climate change and urbanization.
"Exposure to nature increases people's social wellbeing," said Holli-Anne Passmore, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus and author of a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology that showed even a fleeting look at something natural can make a difference. And yet, today "we are becoming more disconnected from the nature around us, nature that we inherently are a part of, not separate from," she added.
In addition to Passmore's research, the new studies across Europe revealed a host of benefits that stem from time spent in nature. Scientists in Berlin at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development found that elderly city-dwellers who lived not far from forests—within a radius of about 1 or 2 kilometers—had higher activity levels in their amygdala, a central nucleus in the brain that plays an important role in stress processing and reactions to danger, than those who lived near urban green spaces. "I think it is a very novel thought at least for the neurosciences that the environment has an impact on plasticity of the brain," said lead author Simone Kühn. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Life in the city can produce chronic stress from noise, pollution and over-population. In her study of elderly city dwellers, Kühn, who now works at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, wanted to find out whether proximity to a forest could help them cope.
She found that those living close to a forest were more likely to show signs of a healthy amygdala, although the same was not true for those who lived near urban green spaces. Study participants were given memory and reasoning tests, and underwent MRI brain imaging. Kühn suggested it might be wise for urban planners "[to try] to integrate forests, not only parks, in cities maybe," adding advice for city home buyers: "One should carefully select not only the flat or the house, but also take the surroundings into account."
Children's brain development enhanced by exposure to green spaces. Pixabay
Over in Spain, researchers studying 1,500 children in two towns found that those whose homes were surrounded by green—shrubs and bushes, trees and flowers—scored higher on two different cognitive attention tests than those who lived in houses that did not have any vegetation around them. "More contact with greenness is associated with improved brain development in children, which is very important, given that such an improvement could result in an advantage in mental capital, which, in turn, would have long-lasting life course effects," said Payam Dadvand, first author of the study, which appeared in the journal Environment Health Perspectives.
The children's study built upon two earlier studies, one that suggested that greenness at schools also was related to enhanced cognitive development in schoolchildren, and a second that found children who spent more time playing in green spaces were less likely to show behavioral and emotional problems, such as hyperactivity and inattentiveness.
Coastal areas boost people's sense of happiness. Pixabay
To the north, English scientists found that spending time in rural or coastal settings was more psychologically uplifting than visiting urban green spaces, such as city gardens and parks. The study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, asked participants to describe their excursions and determined that the subjects experienced greater feelings of relaxation and refreshment, as well as stronger emotional connections to the natural world, in coastal or rural regions, especially if they spent more than 30 minutes in the setting.
They also found that visits to protected or designated areas—national parks, for example—produced the same results. "We found that our mental wellbeing and our emotional bond with nature may differ, depending on the type and quality of an environment we visit," said Kayleigh Wyles, lead author, who conducted the research while at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and who is now a lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Surrey.
Passmore's research, which took place during a two-week period, examined how people felt when they took only a moment in their daily routines to notice something natural around them. They were told to jot down a short note about how they responded to it. Passmore compared this group to two other groups, one tracking their reactions to human-built objects, like a desk or chair, and a third, which did neither.
The sense of well-being among those who focused on natural objects was significantly higher than either of the two control groups, according to the study. One participant, for example, who looked upward at the sky wrote: "It made me feel free because the sky is endless." Another, who noticed the sun, wrote: "Made me feel hopeful, the sun never stops rising."
Most people needn't leave their own space to take advantage of nature's benefits, Passmore said. "People are searching for ways to improve their wellbeing," she said. "One way to do that is simply to notice the nature around you on a daily basis, and notice how it makes you feel. Even in cities, there are trees, birds, leaves, sunshine and stars. Plants and flowers indoors. Noticing nearby nature does not require additional time. It is one way to add boosts of happiness and wonder to your day."
City dwellers enjoy Central Park in New York. Pixabay
Based on their findings, the English researchers stressed the importance of protecting rural settings and coastlines, the latter in particular since it is under increasing threat from rising sea levels and storm surges fueled by climate change-induced extreme weather.
"It was surprising to learn that the extent of protection of marine environments also affects the extent of mental health benefits that people gain from their interactions with the sea," said Mel Austen, head of the sea and society science area at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. "People's health is likely to become an increasingly important aspect to consider as we manage our coasts and waters."
Passmore grew up in a city—Edmonton, Canada—but spent considerable time as a youth in her family's cabin in the woods, and later, as an adult, camping, biking and canoeing. "I have always loved nature and how it makes me feel," she said. "All of this research—mine and others—on the benefits of nature is important. It indicates ways for people to become happier [and] increase their wellbeing. Valuing the natural world around us is vital to our wellbeing on a short-term daily basis, and of course to our survival as a species."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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