Being surrounded by wide open spaces and nature is undoubtedly one of the benefits of a farming lifestyle. Unfortunately, as farms get bigger, busier and more high-tech, farmers may find they are spending less time enjoying nature.
Even worse, as our children spend more time indoors or on screens, they are losing out on the benefits of being outdoors too.
While intuitively we know that being in nature is good for us, there is now hard evidence that time spent in nature reduces stress while increasing our productivity and creativity.
But how much time do we have to spend in nature to get the effect? And just how natural does it have to be to make a difference? Do we have to backpack our way into pristine wilderness, or will taking the time to watch the sun set over the fields count?
These are the kinds of questions Washington, D.C. environmental journalist Florence Williams set out to answer in her new book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.
Williams had felt the impact of not spending enough time in nature firsthand when she moved from Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to urban Washington, D.C. “After the move, I had more trouble sleeping and I became more anxious,” she explains.
Williams travelled the world to find out what scientists had learned about Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by author Richard Louv in his groundbreaking 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.
Williams’ research took her to countries where the appreciation for the connection between nature and well-being is already well recognized. She travelled to Japan where the Japanese practice what they call forest bathing. Williams describes this as strolling in the forest with total sensory engagement — listening, feeling, smelling and hearing the elements of nature.
The Japanese Forest Agency has dozens of Forest Therapy Rangers who lead people on guided walks on forest therapy trails, she says.
The research shows that our nervous systems begin to respond to nature in as little as 15 minutes, says Williams. Our blood pressure drops, our stress hormone levels drop, our parasympathetic system (also called the “rest and digest” system) becomes more active and our sympathetic (fight or flight) system becomes deactivated.
The most restorative environment is one that is interesting but not too interesting, says Williams. Watching a sunset or watching the rain are generally soothing to most humans as are nature sounds, especially wind, water and birds. Surveys indicate people are most attracted to water followed by trees, she adds.
How much time in nature you or I might need for optimum health varies between us as individuals. Some people do not de-stress in nature, whether it’s because of the bugs, the heat or the cold, explains Williams. However, Finnish research indicates on average a minimum of five hours per month is needed to stave off mild depression. Participants who spent at least 10 hours per month in nature experienced even more positive benefits.
Williams has determined that her sweet spot is a minimum of 30 minutes per day spent walking on a trail near her home. To get the most benefit from time spent in nature she recommends being mindful of the experience. “Take out your earbuds and put away your phone. Engage with the natural elements, search out birds and other wildlife,” she says. “Pay attention to what makes you feel good.”
And be sure to soak up the smells, Williams says. “The nose is a direct pathway to the brain.”
Although a walk in an urban park, a view of greenery through a window, or even watching nature videos can have some benefit, there is more positive impact when you can “escape into a more fully immersive natural environment,” Williams adds.
To rank the health benefits of different types of natural environments, Tim Beatley of the University of Virginia developed the Nature Pyramid, modelled after the Food Pyramid used for healthy eating guidelines. At the base of the pyramid are the daily interactions that can help us de-stress and reduce mental fatigue. This is what Williams calls “nearby nature,” such as the trees and birds in our immediate environment.
Going up a level in the pyramid would be weekly outings to more natural forested areas and water bodies. Further up would ideally be to escape one weekend per month to a restful natural area. At the pinnacle would be an annual trek for multiple days to a more pristine wilderness.
This is, of course, the ideal, but even if you can’t achieve the ideal, it’s certainly good to be mindful of the recommendations. Just as we plan for healthy eating and regular exercise, we can make time spent in nature part of our schedule. And if you’re experiencing burnout, spending some time at a cottage or camping in the back country might help restore your resilience.
Don’t forget the children
As our schools cut recess time and pave over school yards, there are implications for our children, especially since they are generally less active and spend more time on digital devices than in years past.
Many northern European schools are moving in the opposite direction. Williams travelled to Scotland and Sweden to witness Forest Schools in action. There, children spend a good part of their day playing and learning in nature. “This is how brains grow and learn,” says Williams, who was impressed at how, in the forest schools, curiosity drives learning and the kids learn to get along. “It’s so sad to put little kids in school with four walls and make them sit inside all day.”
In Scandinavia, 10 per cent of children already attend Forest Schools, and the concept is becoming popular in Germany and the U.K. Now it has even spread to Victoria, B.C. where there are two Nature Kindergartens.
It shouldn’t surprise us that our minds and bodies are most at ease in natural surroundings, says Williams. “This is where we evolved and our physiology is still adapted to being in nature.”
Fortunately, living in the countryside means that the restorative benefits of nature are never too far away… as long as we make an effort to tap into the resource that is all around us.
- The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017) by Florence Williams.
- Biophilia (1984) by E.O. Wilson.
- Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (2008) by Richard Louv.