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6 surprising ways nature benefits your health

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Sometimes the best medicine is right outside your door. Here’s how spending time in nature can help you feel better inside and out.

Birds singing. Sunlight hitting your face. Sometimes all it takes is a few moments outside to feel your shoulders unclench. And it's not just your imagination. Nature can make your brain and your body feel better. And it doesn’t matter if you live in a city. Just looking at green space from your home can lower your chance of anxiety and depression.1

Getting outside doesn’t have to mean an all-day hike or a week in the woods. “Most people can benefit from just a few minutes outside a day,” says Matthew McGlothlin, MD. He’s a family doctor and senior medical director with WellMed Medical Group, part of Optum, in San Antonio. “Just a little bit can help improve your mood and your mental focus.” You can relax on a porch, patio or balcony. Or you can ride a bicycle, take a walk or jog around the block.

Here are six ways getting outside can help you feel better:

1. Nature gives your brain a break

Is your mind feeling cluttered with all the things you have to do? Maybe you’re tired of being inside all day. Take 10 minutes to walk around outside. Studies have found that walking in nature can improve your attention. After a break outside, you can better focus on finishing your to-do list. When you’re outside, your attention is focused on the scenery, breeze or the smell of the air. When you come back in, you’re better able to redirect your mind to focus on your to-dos.2

2. Nature can help make you kinder

One study of children found that being in the natural world may make children nicer to others. The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, took one set of children on a long nature experience. Another group of kids went to an indoor museum. After the experience, children gave pretend assignments to their classmates.

Researchers also asked the kids to imagine how they would split $100 among four options, including giving to charity. The children in the nature group gave more pretend money to charity and gave easier assignments to their classmates. Researchers believe that spending time in nature can make grown-ups kinder, too.3

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3. Nature can make us feel happier

Spending time in nature can make us feel more in touch with ourselves, our lives and our future. One study found that feeling connected to nature was linked to higher levels of overall well-being and personal growth.4 The study authors suggest that feeling like you’re a part of something bigger can help you grow in new ways.

Spending time in nature boosts feelings of happiness in the short term. Plus, research also suggests that the more you do it, the more those feelings tend to hang on.

4. Nature can help us chill out

No beeps. No buzzes. No dings. “Nature is a chance to unplug,” says Dr. McGlothlin. “It allows us to focus on things other than our work and home lives. This has never been more needed than during these last several years.” Working from home, remote learning and lockdowns have all increased our stress levels.

“We’ve never had a greater need for the fresh air, outdoor exercise and mental stress relief that being in nature provides,” says Dr. McGlothlin. Can’t go anywhere without your phone? This may be a good time to put it on silent and keep it in your bag or your pocket.

Once you’re outside, focus on the sights, sounds and smells that surround you. This helps ease worry, but it can also be helpful in tuning your five senses into the natural world.

Try a mindfulness exercise called the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. When you’re outdoors, try to notice5:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can touch or feel
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

5. Nature gives us a chance to connect

“Inviting a friend to walk and talk can be a great way to catch up. Reconnect and do something healthy for your mind and body,” says Dr. McGlothlin. Walking and talking side by side — instead of making eye contact during a face-to-face conversation — may make it easier to talk about tougher topics.

Ready to get out there?

Dr. McGlothlin says you don’t need a big adventure to get the benefits of the natural world. Just be prepared by making sure you bring a few basics. Things like sunscreen, water and a small first-aid kit (if you’ll be hiking in the woods) can help you make the most of those outdoor moments.

Stock up on all your summer essentials in one swoop in the Optum Store. Don’t forget to use your HSA or FSA spending account to save while you shop. 

Sources

  1. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Is a view of green spaces from home associated with a lower risk of anxiety and depression? Published September 25, 2020. Accessed May 27, 2022.
  2. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Understanding nature and its cognitive benefits.
    Published June 24, 2019. Accessed May 27, 2022.
  3. Journal of Environmental Psychology. The psychological and social benefits of a nature experience for children: A preliminary investigation. Published June 2019. Accessed May 27, 2022.
  4. Journal of Happiness Studies. The relationship between nature connectedness and eudaimonic well-being: A meta-analysis. Published April 30, 2019. Accessed May 27, 2022.
  5. University of Rochester Medical Center. 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique for anxiety. Published April 10, 2018. Accessed May 27, 2022.

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