Over the last 50 years or so, our western consumer tech world seems to have increasingly separated us from the natural world. According to recent research we can regularly spend up to ten hours each day inside in front of a screen compared with less than one hour outside in nature. Furthermore, our food is disconnected from its natural source, being more processed with shelf-life prolonging chemicals, and higher levels of sugar than it ever has been before. Why does this matter? Studies show that time spent in nature significantly reduces levels of depression, supporting both emotional and physical wellbeing. Unprocessed wholefood, meaning in its natural state, has renowned important health benefits.

Studies show that time spent in nature significantly reduces depression

We are fortunate in Northern Ireland to be able to access nature and good food relatively easily. We are never far away from a mountain, the sea or a green space. And we have an abundance of good quality meat and vegetables as well as artisan wholefoods produced in Northern Ireland and Ireland. The flourishing number of artisan food markets also speaks to an increased interest in reconnecting with healthy food and its well-being benefits. Foraging experiences are increasingly popular attractions for both tourists and locals alike.

Growing quantities of research papers show that nature acts as a balm for a distressed busy mind and body. Spending time in nature is good for our cognitive abilities and for our physical health, as well as reducing overall stress levels. Why does this happen? The general consensus seems to be that time spent outside in a natural environment reconnects our neuroadaptive human organism to ancestral ways of regulating the mind and body. Unlike being in front of a screen, the smells, sounds, sights, and feeling of being outside all support our body to find balance and regulation.

Just looking at nature can reap health benefits

Social isolation is typically associated with worse subjective health and well-being. However, researchers found that when people with low social connectedness had high levels of nearby nature, they reported higher levels of well­-being. This is great news for those who prefer their own company but want the health benefits of connection.

Interestingly the research also shows that by just looking at nature we can reap some benefit. So, we don’t necessarily need to go for a hike in the Mournes, surf at Whitepark Bay, or walk along the Lagan, instead we can look out of our office window at Divis and the Black Mountain to receive nature’s gifts. The sense of being connected to something bigger than ourselves triggers positive responses in our mind and body.

Another benefit of reconnecting with nature is reverence for our planet, which we humans have so effectively destroyed. A reciprocal respect for tending to our natural environment while also receiving from its health benefits seems like a sensible route to now take. We are less likely to litter a natural beauty spot if we are conscious of its awe-inspiring health offerings.

Staying connected to nature can provide a variety of physical and mental health benefits. Even small doses of nature exposure, such as a walk in a park or a view of greenery from a window, or sampling some delicious locally grown fruit or salad leaves, can have positive effects on our well-being.

Six benefits of spending time in nature

  1. Reduces stress. Nature has a calming effect on our minds, helping to reduce stress levels. Being surrounded by green, fresh air and natural sounds, helps to lower heart rate, cortisol levels, and blood pressure.
  2. Boots immune system. Exposure to natural environments can help boost our immune system. Studies show that people who spend more time in nature have stronger immune systems, reduce inflammation and are less likely to develop chronic health conditions.
  3. Enhances mood. Nature has been shown to enhance our mood and self-esteem and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Spending time outside in nature can increase feelings of happiness, contentment, and overall wellbeing.
  4. Improves physical health. Taking physical exercise while outside in nature has increase benefits compared to being inside due to more endorphins, serotonin and dopamine being released when in nature. Vitamin D levels are also boosted.
  5. Increase creativity. Nature has been shown to increase creativity and problem-solving abilities. Exposure to natural environments can help boost our cognitive functioning and increase our ability to think creatively.
  6. Better sleep. Spending time outdoors and being exposed to natural light can help regulate our circadian rhythms, which can improve the quality of our sleep.

American Psychological Association. (2020, April 1). Nurtured by nature. Monitor on Psychology, 51(3). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature

This article was first published in Northern Ireland Chamber Ambition magazine