Health benefits of being outside

Nature is our ultimate utopia: It refreshes us, inspires us, even heals us. Why not take the path less travelled and explore something green today? Your health will thank you for it.

Anna Sharratt 1
benefits of nature

Photo: istockphoto

Dorothy Walsh is a self-confessed garden junkie. The 37-year-old Hamilton, ON, mom is a member of a community garden where, for the past three years, she has been escaping to grow vegetables, to weed and to enjoy a few moments of alone time. “I love it. It totally relaxes me, which is weird because it’s a lot of work.”

Walsh says the garden, which gets her out of the house after watching three young kids all day, is a great way to connect with nature – from admiring her handiwork to birdwatching.


She has discovered what the British Lake poets knew very well: Being close to nature, whether you’re hiking through a national park or simply admiring fresh-cut flowers on your windowsill, can boost your mood and leave you feeling more alert and less anxious.

Nature as mood Builder
Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist who works with youth and families in Vancouver, BC and author of The Dolphin Way, says she often gives her patients a “lifestyle” prescription. “I will write on a prescription pad: ‘Get outside into nature every day,’” says Kang. “I incorporate that into my treatment because it works.”

For instance, a walk outside improves one’s mood just like light-box therapy is known to help people with mood disorders. “It’s very effective to be outside on a sunny day,” says Dr. Kang, “because our brains release powerful neuro-chemicals similar to those you may be trying to promote with medications.” Plus, there are the added benefits of sunlight: the production of vitamin D, which has been shown in studies to prevent autoimmune conditions and build muscle and bone mass.

Reducing stress is another bonus of reconnecting with nature, according to a review of scientific studies published by Minding our Bodies, a multi-year Ontario-based health promotion initiative.

Additionally, being among greenery improves our cognitive abilities. A 2008 study in the journal Psychological Science assigned participants to walk in either a park or a city setting. The park walkers had improved memory and attention spans over those who walked downtown.

Another bonus of walking outside? A 2010 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that “individuals walking outdoors reported a greater change in vitality compared with indoor walkers.”

Nature as healer
This sense of vitality may translate into faster healing. It’s something Ann Kent, a registered horticultural therapist and past chair of the Canadian Horticulture Therapy Association, is well acquainted with. Kent uses horticultural therapy to help clients recover from illness and deal with a variety of health conditions.


“It’s an activity-based therapy that’s focused around seasonal activities,” says Kent. She visits her clients outdors or in hospitals, clinics and health centres with her nature kit in tow. This portable paradise can include soil and pots, simple flowers for arranging, or a sensory tray with samples of leaves, flowers, seeds and moss.

“Horticultural and gardening activities support rehabilitation programs,” says Kent. For example, someone recovering from a stroke might be encouraged to hold a trowel and work with soil to strengthen muscles in the hand or fingers. A fresh-cut flower can bring a smile to a face. A bit of pine or juniper pinched between the fingers can create an evocative, relaxing scent. Occasionally, she meets resistance from patients. But after a one-on-one 40-minute session (small groups will often spend an hour or two working together), they’re pleased with what they’ve accomplished and buoyed by having handled a plant. “Plants don’t talk back to you,” she says. “If you make mistakes with them, they don’t get angry.”

Kent’s work is backed by research that finds healing is accelerated when people are exposed to even simple things like flowers or houseplants. A study by Kansas State researchers found that patients recovering from surgery who had plants and flowers in their hospital rooms needed fewer pain medications, had lower blood pressure and heart rates and perceived less pain, as well as improved mood.

Nature as multi-tasker
Dr. Kang says she often recommends that her patients look at elements in nature to relax, reduce their blood pressure and find inner peace. “Follow the outline of a tree from the bottom up,” she says. “When you do that, it’s a form of mindfulness – it’s a state of focus.”

Kent, too, advocates getting outside as much as possible and walking in areas where there are trees and green spaces. And if getting outside isn’t an option, greening your home and office can help bridge the gap, says Dr. Kang. In addition to being psychologically calming, a plant or flower bouquet can act as an air purifier, removing harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air.

The bottom line? Experiencing nature doesn’t have to be a huge commit­ment. “It doesn’t have to be complicated – go outside and look at the clouds,” says Dr. Kang. “Really make it a part of your life every day.”

You might even find tiny miracles awaiting you. Just ask Walsh. On the days that she brings her three young kids to the community plot, a strange and wonderful thing happens: “The kids love it. They never even fight when they’re at the garden.”


One comment on “Health benefits of being outside

  1. This article was so refreshing to read. it is everything that I believe with my heart and soul. Thank you for publishing this article and getting this information out into the mainstream. Nature has so many valuable lessons to teach us if we are just willing to slow down, look and listen. In humble gratitude.


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