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Nurtured by Nature

Science supports the mind-body benefits of being outdoors...

Photo by Elva Etienne / Alamy

Science supports the mind-body benefits of being outdoors.

In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” So said American conservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir, and myriad studies on the perks of venturing out to enjoy the local flora strengthen his statement. Whether cultivating a garden or meandering down a wooded trail, research shows that there are real, measurable health benefits to spending quality time out-of-doors. 

Take, for example, the mental and physical rewards of shinrin-yoku, the Japanese term for “forest bathing,” or engaging with nature using all five senses. The evidence of the practice’s health benefits is so strong that the Forest Agency of Japan endorsed it in 1982 as a relaxation and stress-management activity. During a “forest bath,” individuals may observe lush surroundings in a relaxed state for about four hours and walk roughly 3 miles. Tokyo-based researcher Qing Li, MD, PhD, president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, found that after a leisurely forest bath, men and women showed decreased levels of anxiety, depression, and anger as well as an increase in immunity-boosting natural killer cells in the bloodstream. (These antiviral cells appear to help the body fend off illness, reduce inflammation, and even fight cancer.) Some research credits the natural antimicrobial chemicals secreted by evergreen trees, known collectively as phytoncide. 

Bathing in the forest, strolling through the park, or even tending a garden can also provide adequate exposure to vitamin D through the sun’s ultraviolet-B rays. “We all spend way too much time indoors in front of computer and cell phone screens,” says Denise Sur, MD, vice chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Among her own patients, Dr. Sur has noticed health issues, such as weaker bones  from vitamin D deficiency and higher blood pressure, that correlate to excessive indoor activity or prolonged periods away from natural light. 

From a mental health standpoint, Dr. Sur touts the value of communing with nature on any scale. “If I am responsible for making a plant flower or producing a fruit or a vegetable, the clear benefit is that I am spending my energy and concentration on something that is very different than what we focus on most days,” she says. Although a yard with enough room to garden is not a viable option for everyone, a community garden or a container garden on a balcony or patio are worthwhile alternatives. “Just having a place where you can get away from your work, your computer, and the inside of your house provides the mental benefit of gardening,” explains Dr. Sur, who adds that although her older patients are more inclined to garden, a younger generation is cultivating an interest in the activity. The resurgence bodes well for future generations. “If we enjoy gardening and being outdoors, we tend to take our children outdoors, which will encourage them to take note of flowers and plants and teaches them how to take a break from screen time and indoor activities,” she says. 

Nutritionally speaking, people who garden—or who live with someone who gardens—eat more fruits and vegetables every day, according to survey results published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. In the study, just 17.8 percent of respondents from non-gardening households consumed fruits and vegetables at least five times a day, compared to 32 percent of households with a gardener. In addition, family gardeners tended to eat one more serving of fruits or vegetables daily than non-gardeners. 

So enjoy the great outdoors this summer: It is an ideal time for a forest sojourn or to take a trowel in hand for a much-needed dose of horticultural therapy. 

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