Back to Nature: A Holistic Examination of Outdoor Experiences and Wellbeing

Published on 11 December 2023 at 09:00

Introduction  

It is commonly known that we spend a significant portion of our time indoors. In urban settings, our lives revolve around our homes, commuting to work, or settling into home offices, only to return home once more. This lack of exposure to nature has been termed "Nature Withdrawal," although I propose considering it more as "Technological Toxicity." The term "withdrawal" often associates with detoxification from addictive substances that harm our bodies. It matters which thoughts think thoughts, and for a refresher on this concept, refer back to the post "Rewriting Our Stories: Empowering Paths to Health Identity."

"In industrialized, financially wealthy countries, the average adult spends less than 10% of each day outdoors." [1].

The prevailing live-to-work mentality ingrained in modern culture is slowly harming us, leading to increased stress and declining health. Additionally, urban development exposes us to clouds of environmental toxins on our daily routes. Admittedly, I don't fully support the work-to-live mentality either. I lean more towards valuing life or thriving, placing little emphasis on the type of work prevalent in our culture. However, that's a discussion for another time (perhaps in my next podcast episode).

"There has been a 20% decline in per capita visits to national parks since 1988, and an 18–25% decline in nature-based recreation since 1981…" [5].

In this article, I aim to explore the evidence supporting the positive impact of nature exposure and immersion on health, stress reduction, and overall wellbeing. After sifting through six articles and over 100 pages of research, the evidence substantiates what many already recognize: spending time outdoors is incredibly beneficial. Interestingly, while these studies confirm the benefits, they can't pinpoint the exact mechanisms through which nature exposure and immersion affect us. Within these articles, three major theories and numerous methods for testing human response to nature—both qualitatively and quantitatively—were introduced.

The research also introduced three categories of wellbeing:

  • Hedonic Wellbeing: characterized by subjective or emotional wellbeing with high levels of positive emotions, low levels of negative emotions, and satisfaction with one's life [1].
  • Eudaimonic Wellbeing: a broad term encompassing constructs like meaning, autonomy, vitality, feelings of transcendence, and overall "functioning well" [1].
  • Physical wellbeing: especially relevant to mental health, stress, and physical biomarkers, including cognitive function*, Heart Rate Variability, Pulse Rate, Blood Pressure, and Oxyhemoglobin levels.

*Note: Cognitive Function relates to mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.

Several studies within these articles utilized different methods of nature exposure, such as viewing images of natural scenery and primarily immersing individuals in nature or green spaces. "Nature" in the literature typically refers to wilderness, while "Green Space" often denotes cultivated or landscaped areas within urban limits. All these studies compared these experiences against their urban counterparts—using urban imagery for photos and urban walks/immersion for nature and green spaces.

Methods and Results

What's intriguing is that regardless of the type of nature exposure, all subjects experienced significant benefits. Some studies even demonstrated that subjects reported improved mood and reduced stress merely from interacting with a living plant or spending time in a greenhouse.

Many of these studies also indicated increased oxyhemoglobin in the brain, which isn't surprising considering plants are our beloved oxygen producers.

One intriguing finding was that while nature immersion or exposure could elevate mood, it didn't necessarily diminish "bad" moods. Essentially, spending time in nature tips the scales in your favor. Nature won't magically solve home-related issues, but it can heighten positive moods even amid negativity, fostering resilience and vitality. This indicates an improved capacity to cope with life's challenges, even if nature doesn't directly address the root of stress—that's where health coaching steps in! Nature immersion positively impacts the body, supporting better health by reducing stress markers and boosting immunity (as evidenced by Japanese forest bathing studies).

I appreciate that nature isn't responsible for resolving our personal issues. As a Health Coach, I've taken on the role of a guide, so together with Mother Earth, we provide unparalleled support.

Due to the nature of my work with Hungry Heart Quests, I was particularly interested in data regarding nature immersion. I was pleased to discover that individuals immersed in nature experience a more significant mood boost than those merely exposed to nature's visuals [1]. Even better, these benefits extend to those diagnosed with mood disorders!

However, these benefits only truly manifest when people step outside. Numerous barriers hinder individuals from taking a walk or hike, and evidence suggests that most people underestimate the benefits of even brief nature encounters. This misjudgment prevents them from cultivating a healthy outdoor habit—they don't comprehend what they're missing. The more time spent outdoors, the stronger the intrinsic motivation—meaning, you rely less on external factors to drive you towards your goals and dreams; it comes from within. Spending time outdoors is undeniably empowering.

Returning to the theories behind the benefits of nature immersion, it's important to note that these are strictly materialistic views, rooted in scientific research and Western academic thought. Personally, I believe there's more depth and dimension to why nature benefits us, but that's a discussion for another time…

The Three Primary Theories:

  1. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) proposes that urban environments tax our ability to focus (due to overstimulation), while natural environments restore this ability because we're better adapted to the levels of stimulation found in nature [4].
  2. Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) suggests that open spaces are perceived as safer, triggering a subconscious stress reduction due to the physical environment [4].
  3. Biophilia: This theory posits that our affinity for nature stems from our inherent connection to it [2].There's some overlap between the effects of ART and SRT. Currently, it's hard to determine if reduced stress enhances concentration or if attention restoration minimizes stress. Future research may shed light on this, although I doubt it.

Instead of delving deeply into the data, I'll concisely summarize findings from multiple studies. You can explore these further on your own...

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