When was the last time you spent time in nature?
In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, he coined a phrase which is now becoming a key interest for healthcare practitioners – “nature-deficit disorder.” While it is not a clinical diagnosis or term, empirical evidence from a variety of fields, including psychology and public health, supports this idea.
So, what is Nature Deficit Disorder?
Louv argues that elements of an urban lifestyle, such as the presence of fewer green spaces, more screen time, less leisure time, a car-focused culture and increased pressures from work and school leads to adults and children spending less time in nature. A decrease in time spent in nature decrease quality of life and may lead to many health problems such as obesity, mental health issues and social and behavioural difficulties, leading to the so-called Nature Deficit Disorder.
Is there any evidence for this?
While it might seem like this is just an observation or an opinion, multiple studies have shown that our health is related to the green spaces and activities we make use of.
People who have a better access to nature report feeling more satisfied with life and feeling healthier, even after adjusting for income differences. Green environments improve concentration, emotional and social functioning, and the ability to cope with major life challenges.
In 2009, a large-scale study using medical records of over 345,000 individuals in the Netherlands showed that living within 1km of a green space can decrease the incidence of 15 categories of disease, including cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal complaints, anxiety and depression, respiratory issues, asthma, and diabetes.
Nature based interventions – the solution?
There’s been a lot of work recently on figuring out how to help people spend time in nature and carry out green activities. These have been called nature-based interventions. Nature-based interventions are commonly things like horticulture (both active gardening and learning about plants), trips to forests or green spaces, or even forest retreats.
These interventions are especially helpful for people living with chronic conditions and those suffering from poor mental health. Recent research is also looking at using nature-based interventions to decrease workplace stress, which is key for productivity.
Nature based interventions for chronic conditions
A review of 13 studies which looked at the efficacy of nature-based interventions on a range of psychological and physiological outcomes. It suggests that these interventions can reduce mood disturbance, depression and improve “vigour.” These studies had physiological effects as well, with a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormone secretion.
Nature based interventions for mental health
Many nature-based interventions have been successful at improving mental health and quality of life of those who are affected by mental health issues. This has been especially important following the COVID-19 pandemic, as mental health issues increased during the pandemic.
A recent review covering 50 studies has shown that nature-based interventions were associated with a reduction of depressive mood. They were also associated with reduced anxiety symptoms and enhanced positive affect. These effects were observed in all populations, including healthy adults, those suffering from common mental health problems and older adults with chronic conditions.
Nature based interventions for work related stress
Work related stress is associated with factors like long hours, overload and pressure, lack of control or opportunity to participate in decision making, an unclear work role and poor social support. Chronic work-related stress can lead to burnout, which is accompanied by emotional exhaustion and a reduced personal accomplishment.
A recent study looked at two groups of people in a workplace – those that had two 1.5h nature-based interventions each week, which consisted of activities like a nature walk and workshops using natural materials, and those that didn’t. The ones which had nature-based interventions had an improvement in visual information processing speed, in selective attention, and a reduction in stress, both self-reported and measured through salivary cortisol concentration.
What are the best ways to achieve results?
Reading about the benefits of exposure to nature might make it seem like an easy way to improve physical and mental health and quality of life. However, questions may arise on the “dosage” of nature – how often and for how long should one spend time in nature for it to be effective?
- Maximise time in nature. What’s important is maximising the time spent in nature, whether that is actively spending time in the park or even looking at a few trees outside your window. So, there’s no need to change your schedule to fit a hiking trip every weekend – instead spend 10 minutes of your day enjoying the greenness near your home.
- Nature helps in every form! While when we think of nature, we might think of forests, or expanses of land that not everyone might have access to, to get a beneficial effect from it, almost any nature will do. Five minutes at a coastline, trees visible out of a window, reading underneath, having breakfast by a window, a tree or playing basketball in the park – these are all equally good forms of nature you can expose yourself to. Any form of “Vitamin G” helps.
- More green = better wellbeing. Evidence suggests that the greener the dose, the greater the benefits. In a study involving college students, those with a dorm that had trees visible out of the window had better cognitive functioning than those that didn’t. But the greener the views, the better the cognitive functioning! Wild green is exceptionally good – a two-night, three-day stay in a forest area enhances immune functioning for a whole month.
What nature-based interventions can you try?
Nature-based interventions may sound intimidating. But they’re quite simple and most likely, you’re already doing one or two of them!
- Take a walk in the park/garden/forest – this can increase the amount of exercise you do and reduce stress, blood pressure and depression. Bonus points if you go in a group!
- Take part in a wilderness programme like Outward Bound – you’ll get to experience personal growth and a sense of accomplishment, which can do wonders for your self esteem and wellbeing.
- Consider ecotherapy – ecotherapy is a type of therapeutic treatment which involves you doing activities in nature under the supervision of a trained professional. It is also called green therapy or nature therapy.
- Forest bathing – spend time in a forest setting, paying attention to your breathing and trying out different meditative techniques in a forest.
- Environmental volunteering – volunteer for a green cause! Not only will you be connecting to like-minded people, you’ll also be doing something good for the community, which is bound to boost your confidence.
- Exercise outdoors – whether you’re exercising alone or with a group, you’ll not only be moving, but you’ll also feel better! Water or shoreline-based exercises will work just as good as those in a field or a forest.
- Garden – as simple as it sounds, gardening is a fantastic way to increase your daily movement, connect to nature and improve your wellbeing.
Spending time in nature is more beneficial for your health than you may have realised. So this week, make it a habit to spend at least 10 minutes a day looking at nature or replace an episode of your favourite show with a stroll to a nearby park – see what a difference it makes to your wellbeing!
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. The information on this website is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
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