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How spending time in nature could boost your body and mind

After a year of lockdown in our homes, many of us have a renewed appreciation for the great outdoors. In the latest episode of his new podcast series, Just One Thing, Michael Mosley explores the positive effects of spending time in nature. Growing evidence suggests that green spaces can reduce your stress, enhance your mood, improve your concentration and even has the potential to boost your immune system.

Daily doses of nature

If you’re already an avid nature lover, you’ll have noticed how your body calms down at the sight of nature. Your heart rate slows, you feel calmer and your thinking becomes more clear. Research has consistently shown that even the smallest amounts of nature have measurable effects on your body and brain. From reducing the number of visits to your the GP to improving your mood in the long term, spending more time in greenery can have a lasting impact on your health and wellbeing.

Research suggests that spending 120 minutes in nature per week is the key to maximising your long term benefits

While every bit of nature is good, recent research suggests that spending a total of 120 minutes in nature per week is the key to maximising your long term benefits. This came from a recent UK study involving nearly 20,000 people which found that those who spent at least a total of 120 minutes every week in greenery were significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological well-being.

It doesn’t seem to matter too much whether you head for a park, woodland, or a forest. So whether that’s by spending more time in your local park during your lunch break, or opting for a long weekend walk with the dog, or taking a five-minute detour through green space on your way to the supermarket, spending time in nature – at least 120 minutes per week – really can make you healthier and happier.

The evidence for the benefits of spending time in nature is now so compelling that doctors in some parts of Scotland actively prescribe it to their patients for conditions from heart disease to depression.

Getting outside to beat stress

One of the most noticeable long-term impacts of nature is on stress. Studies have repeatedly found that exposure to green space can significantly impact levels of salivary cortisol – a marker of stress. Others have shown that exposure to green spaces is associated with reductions in blood pressure and heart rate, which has a significant impact on your risk of heart disease.

And it’s not just the sights of greenery that has a profound impact on our bodies and brains – it appears that even just the sounds of nature can actually change our brain activity too.

Each time you hear the soothing sounds of birdsong or of a babbling brook, brain scans have shown that your attention will naturally shift outward, you will become less engaged in your own thoughts – and this will help reduce levels of anxiety.

Nature and your immune system

One of the more surprising benefits is suggested by a series of studies from Japan investigating the health impacts of a practice called shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”. Scientists have discovered that “forest bathing” has a significant impact on your immune system, increasing your so-called “natural killer cells” by 50%! The studies involved two groups – one on a long weekend trip away to nearby woodland where they would go for a beautiful two-hour walk in a forest on three consecutive days, the other was an equally luscious trip to the nearest city as a tourist, where participants would go exploring the city on foot for the same duration and at the same times of day. At the end of the trips, a series of blood tests revealed that the forest trip had boosted the participant’s natural killer cell activity by a whopping 56% – and they remained 23% higher than before, even a month after their return. The city trip had no effect.

Scientists have discovered that the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” has a significant impact on your immune system

The exact mechanism involved is still under investigation. Prof Ming Kuo from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been exploring the health benefits of nature for over a decade, looking at its effect on factors such as infection susceptibility as well as mental health and childhood behaviour. In Just One Thing, she talks about the power of breathing in certain microbes found in soil, which have the potential to boost your mood; and the antimicrobial chemicals released by plants – called phytoncides – which could be contributing to the effect. All the more reason to start noticing and appreciating what nature can do for you!

So next time you find yourself strolling through the woods, or sitting on a bench in your local park - or even passing by a nearby patch of green space, why not try and be aware of inhaling the phytoncides, appreciating the leaves, and the fresh air. Your body may thank you for it.

To find out more, listen to Just One Thing: Green Spaces.

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