A little on the science of how it helps

You may already have an instinctive or experience based understanding that time in nature, mindful or otherwise, is good for the health of your mind. But there is actually a growing body of scientific research to back this up and explain a little more about the ways in which we benefit. This may be useful to strengthen your own interest, help you share it with others or just peak your curiosity. So I share a little on the evidence here through a few examples.

In concluding her excellent book on this same subject, The Nature Fix, Florence Williams summed it up perfectly:

"Short exposures to nature can make us less aggressive, more creative, more civil minded and healthier overall. For warding off depression, let's go with the Finnish recommendation of five hours a month in nature, minimum. But as the poets, neuroscientists and river runners have shown us, we also at times need longer, deeper immersions into wild spaces to recover from severe distress, to imagine our futures and to be our best civilised selves."

 
 
 Space for restoring and reflecting. 

Space for restoring and reflecting. 

Time in nature aids the restoration and recovery of our minds and body

One of the first scientific papers of note on the health benefits of access to nature was published by Ulrich in 1984. It found that post-surgery patients assigned a hospital room with a natural view out of the window tended to recover quicker and with fewer complications.

Ulrich's former colleague Stephen Kaplan went on to develop the Attention Restoration Theory which built on numerous studies that showed that time in nature helps our minds recover from stress and fatigue. Kaplan's theory is that in urban areas and the work place, for example, our minds are tired out due to the effort needed to hold concentration. In natural settings, there is less need for ‘directed attention’ and our minds can naturally restore themselves. This is where we can also find brief detachment from sources of stress and our ‘goals’ and instead find space for reflection.

Source: 

Hartig et al. 2011. Health Benefits of Nature Experience: Psychological, Social and Cultural Processes. 


Being in forests has positive effects on physical and mental health

Scientific research has found that participants’ physiological signs of stress (e.g. heart rate or levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone) are alleviated when they walk in woodland and forests. This is particularly well researched in Japan where “shirin yoku”, or forest-bathing (being in the woods and engaging all your senses), is common and there are 48 forest therapy trails available to the public. Further research in Japan has found that time in forests can also boost our immune systems, and it is thought this is linked to particles given off by certain trees in Japanese forests.

In the UK, a project called Branching Out is run by Forestry Commission Scotland in partnership with a range of organisations including NHS Scotland. Participants undertake three hours of activity (such as bushcraft, conservation, health walks) in small groups in a forest every week for 12 weeks. An evaluation by Glasgow University found strong improvements across all measures of mental health and well-being for all groups, along with significant increases in physical activity.  Moreover, participants self-reported improvements in their confidence and self esteem.

Sources:

Lee at al., 2011. Effect of forest bathing on physiological and psychological responses in young Japanese male subjects. Public Health. Vol 125 pp 93-100

O’Brien, L. 2014. We have stopped moving: Tackling physical inactivity – a role for the Public Forest Estate in England. Forestry Commission and Forest Research.

 A forest walk can relieve stress and boost well-being.

A forest walk can relieve stress and boost well-being.


durdle door

Being in natural spaces reduces our rumination, which is a often a pre-cursor to depression

Research led by Stanford University investigated whether nature experience would influence rumination, which they defined as: repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self. Rumination is a known risk factor for mental illness - when people ruminate they activate the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain linked to sadness and withdrawal.

In the study, participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in that area of the brain compared with those who walked through an urban environment. 

Source:

Bratman et al. 2015. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. PNAS. vol. 112 no. 28. pp 8567–8572.