Sara L. Warber, MD, Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan and an honorary associate professor at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter in the UK, has been studying the benefits of spending time in nature for years. Through her and other scientists’ research, they’ve found four main areas humans benefit from as a result of spending time in nature.
Physical benefits: “People tend to be more active when in nature. Also, people enjoy being physically active in nature more than indoors,” she says. Because of this, people are more likely to repeat the activity, which evidence has shown leads to lowered blood pressure, improved immune system function, and better endocrine system balance.
Mental benefits: “People who participate in group walks in nature have greater mental well-being, less depression, less stress,” says Warber. “There is also a large body of literature that shows better cognitive performance following a nature experience, and quicker recovery from stressful exposures.”
Emotional benefits: “Youth in camp settings, people in parks and people on group walks in nature experience more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions,” says Warber.
Spiritual benefits: Both youth and adults experience more transcendence, serenity, and tranquility when they spend time in nature.
Those physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits seem almost too good to be true. I asked Warber if science has found a mechanism or process inside our bodies that is triggered by being in nature.
“This is an area of very active research now,” she says. “One likely mechanism is the Relaxation Response, mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the ‘Fight or Flight’ Response, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. The relaxation response has been investigated in relationship to meditation, mindfulness, and other stress reduction techniques being embraced in health care today.”
“In our study of park users in the UK, the most commonly-reported feeling after being in a park was ‘relaxed’. Some of the nature-based studies have used cortisol as a marker for lower stress and have had good results, implying that the endocrine system is affected as well.”