Why you should exercise in nature?
Most people know that exercising is healthy for the physical well-being, but the minority know the benefits of doing such in natural environments. As the author of the book No Sweat1 mentions that the simple task of walking is sufficient enough to quantify as exercise. Thus, just the physical movement in nature should be more than enough to get the most benefits with the least amount of effort.
What benefits does nature bring?
The obvious the answer is being outside instead of being cooped up in your house and/or office. Though here are more prevalent benefits:
- stress reduction
- allergy reduction
- more physical activity
- better immune system
- less pollution absorption (there are papers coming out with the correlation of air pollution and mental well-being2) and thus better for quality
- good microbe exposure
- better perception of space
- self-esteem improvement
- better focus
- lower heart rate
- faster recovery
- reduction of chronic diseases
- improved mental health
- improved physical health
In the below sections I will the acclaimed points made above.
Why leaves are important?
Not only do the leaves provide us shade from the sunlight and cover from the rainfall but they can also absorb the pollution in the air. Just by having trees outside your windows a more than 50% reduction in particular matter levels inside the house was measured3 4. This particular matter has been linked to wide range of medical issues with the most prevalent one being premature death, mainly via its effects on the heart, lungs, and vascular system3.
These particles are able to gain access to just about every organ in the body, where it’s very likely they’re causing a lot of damage,3
as the researcher states.
Shape of leaves
Not only does it matter of having trees and hedges, but also the shape and roughness are a factor.
Rough leaves like the plane tree’s tend to make the best filters. Leaf texture affected how leaves were cleaned by water, too, with rougher surfaces washed most effectively by short, intense bursts of rainfall, and smooth leaves by long, gentle showers.3
So when considering planting trees and/or hedges the local yearly weather patterns should be considered.
Seasons play a viable role in trapping air pollution with a 7.0% reduction in spring and autumn, and up to 7.5% reduction in summer.5
Though the wind plays an important role as well, which could make the air quality better or worse when including the direction and the velocity.3 With neutral wind, London saw a decrease in particular matter up to 2%.3
So in the end, it’s not as simple as planting more trees to cure the negative effects of air pollution, especially in cities where streets are more narrow and wind tunnels are created.
How nature can help and/or prevent allergies
We know that time spent in natural environments is linked to improved physical and mental health.6 hough recently researches have realized that nature is also linked to development of many lung bearing conditions like asthma or allergies.
From the world wars science was granted the perfect conditions to test this correlation, where in parts of Finland were acclaimed by Russia. Thereby the people didn’t change but only their living conditions. The results were astonishing:
Asthma, hay fever, atopic eczema, self‐reported rhinitis, as well as atopic sensitization, were threefold to 10‐fold more common in Finland, as compared to Russian Karelia. Hay fever and peanut sensitization were almost non‐existent in Russia. These patterns remained throughout the 10‐year follow‐up. Skin microbiota, as well as bacterial and fungal communities in nasal mucosa, was contrastingly different between the populations, best characterized by the diversity and abundance of genus Acinetobacter; more abundant and diverse in Russia. Overall, diversity was significantly higher among Russian subjects.7
Not only this long term study showed the link between microbes found in nature and allergies, but also recent work in humans and mice highlights how exposure to environmental microbes helps protect against allergies and other inflammatory diseases.8
“we saw children living in the countryside surround by forest and green area were much less allergic [than Finnish children in more-urban environments], and they also had a much richer skin microbiota,” says Fyhrquist (a Finnish researcher).8 9
Specifically, the country kids had more, and more-diverse, bacteria on their skin, with a particularly high abundance of Acinetobacter—a genus of microbes in the Proteobacteria phylum that are commonly found on plants.8 10
The researchers further found that children with more Acinetobacter on their skin had more leukocytes in their bloodstream and that these cells were much more capable of producing the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 compared with the leukocytes of urban kids.8 10
In conclusion, by growing up in a rich natural environment, we are soaking ourselves in microbes that helps us combat many allergies and some lung conditions. Anecdotally I can add, that the more time I spend in nature during late winter and early spring, the less severe my hay fever is in late spring.
How the smell of nature is sufficient enough to get positive outcomes11
Scientists did a experiment where they gave participants small electric shocks to stimulate stresses that we receive throughout the day and realized that participants recovered quicker by smelling natural scents over urban odors.
Additionally just viewing natural scenery has been shown that it can
Lower heart rate and restore focus, both of which are important for combatting physical and mental health disorders.11
Interesting enough one doesn’t have to go full fledged into a forest to get these effects and it is sufficient enough to be in a park setting. The recovery in both settings from stresses had barely any differences. Though the recovery in a city scape didn’t exist or wasn’t as beneficial as in a natural setting.
The best part is that pleasant smells are enough to get beneficial effects and thus proving that aroma therapy does work.
Even more intriguing, he says, was the result that the rated pleasantness of smells was the strongest predictor of stress—with high pleasantness being associated with lower initial physiological stress responses and faster recovery—suggesting that smells might have a much more profound effect on reducing stress compared with sights and sounds.
The reason why smells work so good is that they skip a couple of steps when being processed by the brain.
Smell is an intriguing sense because of its wiring in the brain, says study coauthor Johan Lundström, a neuropsychologist at Karolinska Institute in Sweden. It’s “unique among the senses,” he says, because it is not first processed by the thalamus—the brain’s switchboard. Instead, the smell signal is sent straight to the hypothalamus, a brain region involved in stress responses, in addition to the olfactory cortex, where odors are processed and perceived.
In conclusion, if you could flow natural scents into your room, you would become less stressful. One could hypothesize that adding plants into the room could produce similar results.
How much time in nature do you need to get good health and wellbeing12
To get the most benefits from nature one should spend at least 120min and peaks at 200-300min per week.
Compared to no nature contact last week, the likelihood of reporting good health or high well-being became significantly greater with contact ≥120 mins (e.g. 120–179 mins: ORs [95%CIs]: Health = 1.59 [1.31–1.92]; Well-being = 1.23 [1.08–1.40]). Positive associations peaked between 200–300 mins per week with no further gain. The pattern was consistent across key groups including older adults and those with long-term health issues. It did not matter how 120 mins of contact a week was achieved (e.g. one long vs. several shorter visits/week).
It is important to notice that you don’t have to spend the whole time in one sitting and it can be spaced out in multiple smaller segments of 20-30min throughout the week.13
Further claims that were made of the benefits of natural exposure
Within these subsections I will source the other claims made of the benefits of nature that weren’t gone in direct detail.
However, the link between time spent in nature and physical activity was less pronounced than the researchers had expected. For every additional hour spent in natural outdoor environments per week, physical activity increased by only around 78 seconds, suggesting that the health benefits of natural environments might be coming primarily through other mechanisms. “In contrast to what we thought before, the evidence appears to be more consistent and stronger for stress reduction, restoration and mental health, and social contacts than for physical activity,” says Nieuwenhuijsen.15
Though when considering that getting to nature one needs to be physically active and once in the setting of nature one usually just doesn’t lay around. Thus with these acknowledgements one will definitely be more active than just the average of 78 seconds that the study has shown.
Further due to this increase in activity, not only will you be helping your health, but you will also be helping your self-esteem.
Dose responses for both intensity and duration showed large benefits from short engagements in green exercise, and then diminishing but still positive returns. Every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood; the presence of water generated greater effects. Both men and women had similar improvements in self-esteem after green exercise, though men showed a difference for mood. Age groups: for self-esteem, the greatest change was in the youngest, with diminishing effects with age; for mood, the least change was in the young and old. The mentally ill had one of the greatest self-esteem improvements.14
In conclusion of the two studies, if you had to choose to get most bang for your buck, you should ideally choose an environmental setting that has a water source like a pond or a stream.
Better perception of space11
If you want to improve your perception of space then you will benefit by listening to multiple bird species over just one.
Based on a previous study that found that listening to clips of multiple bird species singing in an urban area had a stronger positive effect on people’s perception of the space than listening to one species alone,11
So next time you are in nature, you might want to choose to ditch the headphones and actually listen to the natural music created by nature’s dwellers.
We used to be nature thriving creatures until we built ourselves artificial prisons. We shouldn’t forget our roots and spend time in that which brought us our survival aka nature!
- Can Exercise Explain the Health Benefits of Natural Environments? Source
- The importance of greenspace for mental health Source
- Exploring mechanisms underlying the relationship between the natural outdoor environment and health and well-being – Results from the PHENOTYPE project Source
- Natural immunity Source
- Could Manipulating the Microbiome Treat Food Allergies? Source
- Selective attention and heart rate responses to natural and urban environments Source
- Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation Source
- Bird song diversity influences young people's appreciation of urban landscapes Source
- Reduction of physiological stress by urban green space in a multisensory virtual experiment Source
- Time Spent in Nature Is Good for You Source
No Sweat - How the simple science of motivation can bring you a life time of fitness - by Michelle Segar ↩︎