By Mark A. Ellison, Ed.D
I am sure you are familiar with the Lao Tzu’s saying, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” When it comes to nature it could not be any more true. I began escaping to nature for restoration when I was 19, and it is a habit that I have continued ever since. It is the cornerstone of my practice to stay healthy. It all began with one hike.
Up High in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina (Photo by Mark Ellison)
It really is a habit for me now. I don’t have to think about it, it is ingrained in me. I gravitate towards nature, particularly forests, for one primary reason, I feel better once I go there!
Abundant research is happening now on how nature improves health. Here are the top five reasons I keep going back.
Spending Time in Nature Heals Your Attention Capacities: The demands of urban living on attention capacities are immense. In contrast, natural settings allow attention to rest. Soft fascination aspects of nature including flowing water, the sound of wind in the trees and bird calls offer just enough activity to keep us interested, while allowing our directed attention capacities to rest. When directed attention is fatigued we become irritable, and find it difficult to focus and concentrate.
Green Exercise Offers More Benefits: Exercising in nature provides the multiplier affect, allowing restoration for the body and mind. Exercise in urban settings is fine, but when you are in nature the environment provides the benefit of helping create mental clarity, the air is cleaner and it is usually less crowded.
Solitude and Quiet Decrease Stress: We live in a loud world, getting more so by the day. Noise is associated with a number of health problems, including increases in stress and violent behavior. Noise inhibits the ability to concentrate. Being able to escape to a forest that is mostly free of human noise and structures provides “cognitive space”. It provides an opportunity to disconnect from people, technology and stress. One of the landmark research studies on the impact of nature on health was Roger Ulrich’s finding that patients with a view of nature had quicker recovery.
Immune System Strengthened: Research in Japan has found spending time in forests increases the number of Natural Killer Cells and their activity in the body. Natural Killer Cells help to strengthen the immune system.
Brain Stimulator!: I have so many ideas and aha moments after I spend time in the forest. My brain feels so good. Research reveals spending time in nature may be a creativity enhancer. When I spend several hours in nature, I think much more clearly, I often develop my most creative ideas and have “aha” moments during this time.
If you work full time, live in an urban setting and have other responsibilities you may find it difficult to make time to get in nature, or even find nature, depending on where you live. It is important to find a place near where you live, that is convenient to access. This will help eliminate excuses and make it easier to keep focused on your goal of being in nature. Aim for 15 to 30 minutes to get started. Once this becomes a habit gradually increase the time.
Photo by Mark Ellison
While you are spending time in nature I encourage you to just listen. Clear your mind. Relax. AND REALLY LISTEN TO NATURE. What do you notice? Give the forest time and it will help you find balance in your life that will bring you great fulfillment.
Slow down and notice what new things come to your attention. Appreciate these things.
The Importance of Giving Back to Nature
Our relationship with nature is symbiotic. We can’t just take from nature for health, we need to do our part to help nature remain healthy as well. You can give back by volunteering in a local park, forest or garden.
It is also important to be aware of the people who have tended the land we now enjoy. Just as they tended the wild lands, we should as well.
Take the First Step
Take the first step outside to the forest and see where it leads you. Once you have, let me know what you notice.
Summer in the Appalachians (Photo by Mark Ellison)