If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard that spending time in green spaces and enjoying nature offers a range of benefits. You may understandably be a bit skeptical. People and pundits constantly claim that everything from practicing a hobby to organizing your home yields significant, measurable benefits.
Luckily, there’s plenty of research that shows that spending time in nature is helpful. The following are just a few examples of studies clearly demonstrating the many reasons we should all prioritize relaxing in green spaces—for example, through forest bathing or solo and group nature excursions.
Even Pictures of Nature Are Beneficial
It’s important to understand that actually going out and spending time in nature is the best way to take advantage of the experience. Immersing all your senses in a natural environment is more effective than taking a “virtual hike.”
That said, it’s worth noting that nature’s effects on our wellbeing are so strong that, when you’re stuck inside, even mere pictures of nature can still offer some clear benefits.
For example, in one study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers discovered that when participants simply stared at pictures of beautiful natural settings for as little as 40 seconds, the brain entered a measurably more relaxed state. Participants also performed better on a test of attention than the control group, who were instructed to stare at a concrete ceiling.
Another study published in Environmental Science & Technology indicates that looking at pictures of nature can boost your autonomic function after having an acutely stressful experience. That’s especially important, because your autonomic nervous system controls crucial but unconscious bodily processes, such as digestion, heart rate, breathing rate, and how the pupils of your eyes respond to light.
The researchers conducting this study had one group of participants look at pictures of nature after having stressful experiences, while another group looked at pictures of urban settings. The group that looked at pictures of nature exhibited significantly greater improvements in autonomic function than the group that looked at urban scenes.
Once again, none of this is to suggest that looking at pictures of green spaces is a substitute for actually experiencing them in person. These examples merely show how nature’s ability to improve our physical and mental health is so strong that it can even deliver measurable effects through images.
Some researchers explain these results with a concept called biophilia. First popularized by the American naturalist Edward O. Wilson, the biophilia hypothesis posits that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life, and that this quality is the essence of our humanity. (For a more complete exploration of this idea, see Wilson’s own book on the subject.) The biophilia hypothesis has influenced professionals in other disciplines—for example, biophilic architecture is designed to increase building occupants’ connection to the natural environment.
More Benefits with More Time Outdoors
If pictures of nature can provide measurable benefits, imagine what going outside can do!
Don’t fret if you live in a city. Odds are good you have plenty of options to choose from if you ever want to get out of the city and enjoy spending some time in nature. For instance, just a little over an hour north from New York City, you’ll find the Shawangunk Ridge, a gorgeous area of the state that’s home to Minnewaska State Park. The Shawangunk Mountains and the Hudson River Valley are excellent, accessible destinations for New Yorkers looking to get back to nature.
Fortunately, even when immediate circumstances don’t permit you to leave the city, there’s a good chance you can at least spend some time in one of your local parks. Research indicates that this can also provide benefits.
Many studies throughout the years have confirmed that exposure to nature can reduce physical and mental stress, and even potentially guard against a range of psychiatric conditions. Recent evidence also indicates you don’t need to spend hours at the park if you’re on a tight schedule, either—one recent study revealed that spending as little as 20 minutes in a park was enough to increase participants’ subjective well-being: in other words, their sense of life satisfaction.
Though a quick walk in your local park can help you feel less stressed and happier, other research suggests you may receive even greater benefits by spending more time in nature. A study in Behavioral Sciences compared the different effects of experiencing three “levels of nature”: an undeveloped, natural site that resembled wilderness; a city park; and an indoor exercise facility in a city.
The researchers measured participants’ cortisol and amylase (a digestive enzyme) levels before and after they visited the respective sites. Their findings show that natural environments can reduce physical and mental stress—and that visitors to the wild, natural environment reported “significantly lower” levels of stress than the participants who visited the urban park or the indoor exercise facility.
These results are similar to the research on forest bathing. This practice was born in Japan but is now popular around the world—it involves taking a longer, quiet, meditative walk in the woods, just to absorb nature with all one’s senses. Research indicates that forest bathing can reduce stress and even increase production of the body’s natural killer (NK) cells, which are critical to the immune system.
All these studies remind us that nature can have tremendous positive effects on our wellbeing. You don’t need to do more than look at a photo of a natural setting for a quick pick-me-up, but longer nature excursions and forest bathing may provide the greatest benefits.