The Benefits Of Being Outside In Nature
For city dwellers, it can be easy to forget that there is a vast world of lush greenery outside of the glass skyscrapers and cement pillars that entomb its inhabitants, acting as a barrier between grey and green. Even though Australian cities try to add a splash of nature by way of vertical gardens in corporate lobbies and rows of small trees dotted along busy streets, the result is a far cry from the almost omnipotent presence that nature has on us mere humans. The simple truth is that the grandeur of nature can't be conveniently integrated into architecture on a massive scale while simultaneously providing the benefits that are essential to the existence of life.
But what exactly are the benefits of nature? How does it affect our mental and physical health? Well, before discussing the essential benefits of being outside in nature and the role it plays in our everyday lives, it is important to first understand the relationship between nature and humanity, and what exactly defines what nature is.
Why Is Nature So Important?
The answer to this question is immediately obvious but also multifaceted. In basic terms: nature is trees and trees create oxygen - which humans need to survive, thus nature is important because we need to breathe. But nature is also the oceans, rivers and soil that provide us with the food we need to eat in order to survive. Nature is also the forests and ecosystems that harbour and create the very existence of life itself. On a larger scale, nature is the nitrogen, oxygen, argon and other gases that make up our atmosphere which shields us from the radiation constantly beaming down on Earth from the sun.
In its simplest form, nature is life - humans, sunlight, animals, plants, bacteria, viruses, oxygen - everything that has ever and will ever exist, everything that you can see and feel is nature. And yet it can be so easy to forget how important nature really is. On a worldly scale, the importance of nature can not be understated - but what about on a human scale? How bad can it really be if we spent less time in nature? Spoiler alert: it's pretty bad.
The Impact Nature Has On Cognitive Development
There are many studies and research that demonstrate that children and adults can actually focus better after being exposed to nature, even reducing the symptoms of ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) resulting in improved concentration. One of the main reasons for this is because of cortisol, a hormone that is released into the bloodstream from the adrenal glands that provides a quick energy source to the large muscles. When balanced with epinephrine, this isn't an issue - but when too much cortisol is released into the body due to stress on a constant basis, it quickly becomes a problem.
This issue can be evident as early as childhood, with children growing up in stressful environments reportedly having elevated levels of cortisol. Having increased and sustained high cortisol levels can negatively affect the hippocampus, which is the learning and memory centre in the temporal lobe. It can also affect the prefrontal cortex, which is also known as the executive function centre. The result can lead to poor impulse control and cognitive deficits as the child develops. But this isn't isolated to just children, as prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol is also a major risk factor for dementia in the elderly, negatively impacting their capacity for emotion recognition and emotion processing.
So, what if you aren't stressed all of the time and still don't regularly visit nature? You should be fine, right? Well, not exactly. The Global CogFx, an organisation of building experts and industry-leading health professionals, conducted a study in 2021 regarding the impact that air quality has on cognitive function. The study found that when exposed to regular PM2.5 (Particulate Matter) and CO2 measurements within an indoor environment, the participants would experience up to a 2.4% slower cognitive response time for every 500ppm increase of CO2.
Basically, all of the participants, regardless of age, experienced slower cognitive function (which is our ability to think, learn, problem solve and remember) when there was less fresh air in the room. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "go outside and get some fresh air" - but what exactly happens when you 'go outside and get some fresh air'? Is the ability to think clearly the only major benefit that nature can provide?
The Main Benefits Of Nature
From a multitude of research and studies spanning thousands of years, with many regarding Aristotle as the first scientist back in 384 BC, we have a wide understanding of the many benefits that nature provides. From regularly going on hikes and camping trips to just spending more time in the backyard, there is a wide variety of health benefits that come from simply being outside. Even though there are many health benefits, there are three main broader benefits that cover cognitive improvement, increased connection and overall happiness.
Nature reduces stress & makes us happier
According to the Harvard Medical School, simply having a break outside for around 20 minutes is enough to reduce your stress levels. For three days a week for eight consecutive weeks, participants spent time outside during their breaks and were told to avoid all unrelated stimuli such as going on their phone. The result was that immersion in nature was associated with the biggest drop in cortisol levels, demonstrating that simply spending between 20 to 30 minutes a day in nature can reduce the cortisol levels in your blood and produce a calming effect.
Nature makes us feel more connected
It has been found that spending time in nature makes us feel connected, not just with the world but with our fellow humans as well. The exact reason for this is most likely due to a combination of factors, such as the biophilia hypothesis. This is the idea that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other life forms due to our ancestors evolving in wild settings where this was essential for survival.
The Human-Environment Research Lab conducted a study to understand how participants who had access to nature, such as trees and greenery, in their neighbourhood interacted with each other compared to those who did not have access to nature. The study found that those who spent time in nature had a stronger sense of community, were more concerned with supporting others, reduced feelings of loneliness and felt a greater sense of belonging compared to those who did not spend time in nature.
Nature restores physical & cognitive wellbeing
Many organisations, such as the Yale School of the Environment, have researched how nature can restore physical and cognitive well-being. They found that spending time in nature can lower blood pressure, lower stress hormone levels, enhance immune system function, reduce nervous system arousal, reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem, all resulting in an improved mood. And with long-term exposure to nature, it can lead to decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease due to increased levels of physical activity. Exposure to the sun (of course, with appropriate sun protection) when outside is also a great source of vitamin D, which increases serotonin levels in the body that results in stabilising mood, increasing happiness and actively fighting depression.
Head Outside & Discover The Benefits Of Nature Today!
If you haven't been outside in nature for a while, then right now couldn't be a better time. Whether you plan a camping trip with family for the weekend or decide to have your lunch break outside at a nearby park, always remember to take some time aside to 'go outside and get some fresh air' every once in a while. Make sure you check out our Adventure Centre for more exciting destinations and helpful tips such as:
- How To Plan The Perfect Day At The Beach
- The Ultimate Checklist For Hiking Essentials
- Ultimate Guide To Camping At Home
- Ultimate Guide To Easy Camping Food Ideas