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Spending Time in Nature:
The Secret to Health?


Can’t Make it Outdoors?
Ways to Bring the Outside In

  • Dress up your window view: Plant a tree, a window sill garden, hang a bird feeder or a potted plant
  • Open the windows (and the curtains) as often as possible to let in fresh air and sunlight
  • Bring the healing properties of nature’s scents indoors with aromatherapy. Choose essential oils with earthy smells like sandalwood or patchouli
  • Hang nature-themed artwork including photographs and paintings. Better yet, create and display your own seasonal nature collage made with leaves, pine cones, dried flowers, pebbles, and other pieces you picked up on your last hike
  • Go online and download a nature-themed screen saver or background for the days you spend hours behind a computer
  • Indoor plants are a great way to clean up the indoor air and remind us of the green goodness that awaits us outside
  • Water fountains have become a popular way to bring nature sounds indoors. From a small desktop size to a 4’ tall water wall, indoor fountains can lull you into a restful night’s sleep

By Suzette Barakat

Do you ever find yourself easily distracted, irritable, and unable to focus on the task at hand? If so, you may suffer from mental fatigue — a common condition caused by doing too many activities that require focused attention.

Even spending small amounts of time in a natural setting can help ease mental fatigue. In their 1998 hallmark book, With People in Mind, environmental researchers Rachel and Stephen Kaplan emphasize that being outdoors, and in particular, achieving a reverie they dub “quiet fascination,” is particularly effective at easing mental fatigue and facilitating rest and recuperation.

Think of the times on hikes when you paused to look closely at a colorful autumn leaf or stooped down to examine a lush carpet of moss, only to discover a family of fungi hiding on a small log nearby. The Kaplans explain that these moments of discovery and fascination make up “a spontaneous, effortless kind of attention” that is distinguishable from office-bound tasks like reading, writing a report, or preparing to give a presentation. As you follow your curiosity from leaf to stone to caterpillar, you relax into an exploration of your natural surroundings, which gives the attention-driven part of your brain a much-needed break.

How much time in a natural environment do you need to reverse mental fatigue? While the answer is unclear, the Kaplans explain that it’s as easy as having a window with a nice view.

While the fascination experienced spending time in nature refreshes our brain circuits, sounds in nature also enhance human health. In fact, you need not look further than the personal fountain in your work space to discover one of the most popular and powerful healing sounds in nature: running water.

In a 1997 study, Dr. Lee Berk, a psychoneuroimmunology researcher with Loma Linda University, took 10 cancer patients with chronic pain and showed them a 30 to 40 minute-long nature video, of which 15 minutes focused on water sounds, such as waves, waterfalls, and creeks. After the brief viewing, stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol dropped 20% to 30%.

You may have noticed your own preference for the sound of running water. While it’s not clear why we respond to the sounds of water, the calming, mind-easing effects seem to balance the body’s hormones in a health-enhancing way.

It makes sense, you might say, that spending time in nature restores our attention by giving us something novel to explore. In fact, your own experiences have probably proven that rhythmic, soothing sounds of running water calm a busy mind and leave you refreshed. However, have you also considered that the smells of nature enhance health? We take for granted that pollution in the air we breathe can cause asthma and other health problems, but what if walking through an old growth forest could improve diabetes? In a collection of essays entitled Teaching the Trees, botanist Joan Moof describes Shrinrin-Yoku — the ancient Japanese art of wood-air breathing.

In a 1998 study, Japanese researchers at the Hokkaido University School of Medicine showed that nine walks through an old growth forest over a six-year period led to a lower average blood sugar in patients with type 2 diabetes. The researchers postulate that the forest environment brings about changes in hormonal secretion and nervous system function that provide glucose-lowering benefits beyond those gained by just walking alone.

In fact, researchers in California’s Sierra Nevada found they could name only 70 out of the over 120 compounds they discovered in the air of old growth forests. So the next time you walk through any forest, but especially one filled with old growth trees, take the advice of your fitness instructor and “don’t forget to breathe.”

Suzette Barakat has a background in nutrition and is studying to become a physician at Oregon Health and Science University. To invite Suzette to speak about nutrition, health, or diabetes at your next work or community event, email her at barakat@yahoo.com.

Right Lib

Walk About Magazine, is a northwest walking and hiking publication in Portland, Oregon.


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