Health Benefits of Being in Nature

By Melinda Myers - horticulturist and gardening expert
January 18, 2020

You know and now research is proving that gardening and enjoying the outdoors is good for our mind, bodies, and spirit. This connection to nature is part of our genetic evolution and when we stray from this connection we suffer and so does the environment we need to thrive.

Recent studies have found that school-aged children who participated in outdoor activities had better vision than those that spent the majority of their time indoors. Children that engage in nature and gardening are more focused, score better on exams and are less likely to develop or exhibit symptoms of ADHD. And kids who play outside and get a bit dirty also have stronger immune systems.

connect with nature by hiking in the woods

All ages benefit from being outdoors. People who exercise outdoors increase the benefits they gain from this activity. Research found participants were less fatigued and less likely to suffer from obesity and related health conditions when they exercised outdoors.

The Arthritis Foundation encourages all of us, even those with joint pain, to keep moving. Gardening helps increase flexibility and strengthen our muscles. Staying active also helps fight anxiety and depression that arthritis sufferers often experience. The Arthritis Foundation offers tips to help you keep gardening despite the aches and pains.

In addition to the health benefits, spending time outdoors can elevate our mood and reduce stress, as well as improve our memory, focus, and problem-solving ability.  Outdoor activities were also found to help alleviate symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia. After a walk in nature or time spent in the garden you just may find yourself more energized and creative. When under a tight deadline and writer’s block strikes, I go to the garden and weed for a few hours. When I return to my computer the words just seem to flow onto the page.

A mindful walk in the woods, known as Forest Bathing, is another way to clear your mind, reduce health problems, improve sleep and elevate your mood.  We are not talking about a strenuous hike or run through the woods, but rather a slow walk on a gentle path where you engage all five senses along the way.

red admiral butterfly on a coneflower

To do this you need to turn off the cell phone and listen to the birds, smell the scents that fill the air and experience all aspects of the surrounding woodlands.

The practice of forest bathing began in Japan in the 1980s. Research found those practicing forest bathing had optimum nervous system function, well-balanced heart conditions, and fewer bowel disorders. And those fighting terminal diseases were helped by frequent walks in nature.

Everyone benefits from access to parks, community gardens, and other green spaces. Scientists studying the link between green space and levels of depression, anxiety, and stress in communities as a whole found a strong correlation between the two. The more green space, the less overall health issues in a community.

A recent study found a significant difference in spending on Medicare-covered health services in counties with significantly more green space than those without. There is the potential to save billions of dollars on health care costs by including green spaces in our communities.

And the presence of trees is an important part of those green and urban spaces. We all learned the environmental benefits of trees when celebrating Arbor Day as children. These amazing plants remove dust and pollutants from the air, provide cooling shade, and release oxygen for us to breathe. But spending time among the trees also helps boost our immune system. Studies reveal tree-filled landscapes help decrease domestic conflict, as well as aggression and violence at schools.

Many of these benefits are derived from the soil beneath our feet. Gardeners joke that “digging in the dirt” makes us feel better. Scientists recently uncovered a connection between soil microbes and human health, including our emotional and mental states.  They found an antidepressant microbe in the soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, that increased cognitive ability, lowered stress and improved concentration.

Scientists believe this soil bacterium activates immune cells that impact the production of serotonin, often referred to as the “happy molecule”. Further research is investigating the potential of using these non-addicting antidepressant soil microbes for treating a variety of disorders and diseases.

If you’re worried about contaminants such as lead in your soil, have it tested before planting. In the meantime purchase organic potting and planting mixes for containers and planters; then dig in.

Some of us have easier access to gardens and natural spaces than others. You may be fortunate enough to have a large backyard or nearby park. But many are not as lucky and depend upon public spaces for their nature fix.

Luckily some communities and urban planners already recognized these benefits and included green spaces throughout their cities. Others are just now finding ways to add nature to their communities by setting space aside to create green spaces and converting vacant lots into pocket parks and community gardens.

connect with nature on a hiking trail

Visiting and supporting public gardens, parks, and arboreta is another way to enjoy and preserve nature.  Not only will you improve your mood, but you may also get your creative juices flowing as you discover new plants or design ideas to include in your own landscape.

If your personal garden space is limited consider joining a community garden. They provide space for growing your own vegetables and perhaps some extras to share with those in your community. You will not only enjoy the physical activity and fresh produce, but the company other gardeners provide.  Soon you’ll be sharing plants, surplus produce, and recipes with each other. Spending time with others helps combat social isolation and loneliness that researchers found is more detrimental to your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Consider bringing a bit of nature indoors. Filling your home with tropical and succulent plants adds beauty to your home and helps remove impurities from the air. Tending plants, indoors or out, helps elevate our mood and reduce stress and depression.

Then add a few cut flowers to your home to elicit a smile in just a few seconds, improve your mood for several days and increase your connection with others.  And share these benefits with others by giving friends and family a gift of cut flowers.

So as you make your New Year’s Resolution or start planning for the coming year, include time to enjoy nature. You will be amazed at the difference pulling a few weeds, planting flowers and walking in the woods can make in your daily routine.