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Kin Korner: The psychological and physiological benefits of being exposed to nature

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By Sara Hamilton and Liam Meehan

Kin Korner is a health and wellness column by the students of Joanna Sheppard’s Kinesiology 360 class. Check back every week for a wide variety of tips and tricks on how to stay sane as a student in an insane world.

Exposure to nature has significant psychological benefits for an individual’s overall well-being. These include a more positive mood, increased ability to concentrate, restored directed attention, improved general mental health, enhanced academic and workplace performance, and decreased stress and anxiety levels. Each of these outcomes are mentally restorative, causing individuals to be more satisfied with their lives. This all results from exposure to outdoor environments, particularly due to its evidently strong “healing power.”  

Going for a walk (or participating in outdoor activities in nature of any kind) leads to more positive effects on mood and cognition than simply looking at pictures of nature does. According to scholars Logan and Selhub from the academic journal BioPsychoSocial Medicine, this is because less energy is expended on efforts to filter out non-pertinent stimuli in nature. Meaning, individuals have fewer distractions from the outside world when on a walk in nature, which allows more time for mindfulness.

Viewing nature scenes activates our parasympathetic nervous system in ways that reduce stress and autonomic arousal because of our innate connection to the natural world, according to scholars Bratman, Daily, Levy, and Gross from Landscape And Urban Planning. When stress and anxiety levels are decreased, people tend to have an increase in positive mood.

Research also states that natural environments invoke a different sort of attention from people. The sense of fascination and “being away” results in the replenishing of directed attention, because people are less heavily taxed in these alternative environments. This is why nature is such a powerful tool for enhancing cognitive performance for tests that involve memory and attention.

Aside from psychological benefits, it is important to consider the tangible physiological benefits of spending time in nature. Treating the body with nature will in turn aid the mind, as the two are connected. Visiting your local park, or going out for a hike, can have positive effects on your body. According to research by M. Moore of New Scientist, individuals had lower blood pressure, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, when they took country walks than when they walked city streets. This means it is important to get out and visit areas that have had less human activity.

Furthermore, time spent in nature has been tied to increases in immune-boosting killer T cells in women with breast cancer. Perhaps the fight against other types of cancer would see benefits from nature as well. With cancer being as prevalent as it currently is in Western societies, it is important to consider all areas of treatment.

People are spending less and less time in nature. Because of this we miss out on the numerous benefits outlined above. With urbanization, the problem will only worsen. Future generations need to be considered, or they will miss out on the benefits of spending time in nature, perhaps may even be developmentally impaired.

These ideas are echoed by researchers from Social and Behavioural Sciences, who state: “The past few decades have shown that the opportunity for children to have a direct connection with nature and outdoor environment has declined due to rapid urbanization. Children are facing various physical and mental health problems as consequences from this phenomenon.” It is important that the benefits of spending time in nature be shared for our own sake, and the sake of health education for future generations.

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