February is American Heart Month, and you probably know the sage advice that eating nutrient-rich foods and exercising can help keep your heart healthy. But, you might also want to consider adding a dose of nature to your health routine. Spending time in the great outdoors may have a positive impact on your overall health, including your heart and brain.
Research shows that spending time in a natural outdoor environment can be associated with lower levels of stress, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, stroke and heart disease. It can also help lower your heart rate, HDL cholesterol and cortisol levels, according to environmental research published in 2018. At the same time, it improves mood, self-esteem, working memory and overall feelings of well-being. This trend, called “ecotherapy” or “forest medicine,” is growing in popularity.
Four Ways to Get Healthy and Outside
If you find yourself feeling a little sluggish or spending more time glued to the computer, cellphone or TV, consider some of these simple ways to immerse yourself in nature and reap the benefits for both body and mind.
1. Take your workout outdoors. Walking is good for you, but not all walks are created equal. Strolling the urban streets doesn’t provide the same mental boost as hiking in nature. You don’t have to have a specific destination in mind either — set a goal, not to hike a certain number of miles, but to immerse yourself in the natural world around you, according to Dr. Qing Li. The Japanese call this “forest bathing,” and it can rejuvenate a weary mind.
2. Explore your city. Make a goal to explore a new park, trail or recreation area each weekend. Studies have found that simply viewing nature scenes can help your body recover from and adapt better to emotional stressors. For even more benefit, make it social and involve friends or family for an easy way to stay connected as you relish your surroundings.
3. Soak up the sunlight. As we head into spring, it’s time to move on from cozying up inside during the darker, colder winter months. Take advantage of the increasing daylight and nature’s health benefits by spending time outdoors. Even just a few minutes in the sun can improve your mood, help you get vitamin D and enhance cognitive abilities like memory and problem-solving. Be sure to practice sun safety, using sunscreen or protective clothing, if you’re going to be outside for a while.
4. Meditate on nature’s music. Leave your electronics behind and listen to the melodies nature has to offer: babbling brooks, bird songs, wind whistling through the trees and the scurrying of unseen animals through the canopy. In the Scientific Reports article, titled “Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds,” researchers suggest nature’s music is a lot more relaxing than honking horns and text message alerts. And, it offers the opportunity to practice meditative mindfulness in tranquil surroundings. To learn how to meditate or teach others about its benefits, the American Heart Association and Aramark offer resources to help you get started.
It’s great to move more and get outside, but don’t forget the benefits of simply relaxing and paying attention to your natural surroundings. With warmer months ahead, start finding small ways you and your family can get more time outdoors. If you’re interested in sharing these tips and more with your community, visit the Healthy for Life webpage.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum is Director of Women’s Cardiovascular Prevention, Health and Wellness at Mount Sinai Heart; Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association; and Expert for the American Heart Association.
Twohig-Bennett C., Jones A. The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental Research, October 2018. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030
Pearson DG, Craig T. The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, 2014. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178
Bratman GN, Hamilton JP, Hahn KS, Daily GC, Gross JJ. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 2015. doi:10.1073/pnas.1510459112
Coon JT, Boddy K, Stein K, Whear R, Barton J, Depledge MH. Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. Environmental Science & Technology, 2011. doi:10.1021/es102947t
Li Q. Forest Bathing’ Is Great for Your Health. Here’s How to Do It. Time. May 1, 2018. http://time.com/5259602/japanese-forest-bathing/. Accessed July 25, 2018
Hansen MM, Jones R, Tocchini K. Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review. Miyazaki Y, Kobayashi H, Park S-A, Song C, eds. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2017;14(8):851. doi:10.3390/ijerph14080851.