When it’s time for a vacation, a break from the everyday stress of work and home, why is so often the first thought to go to the beach or the woods? Maybe because we all seem to intrinsically know what science is finally beginning to understand, according to the University of California at Berkeley Psychologist Dacher Keltner.
“Most people have the sense that after a good dose of the outdoors, they feel stronger and healthier,” Keltner told Outside Magazine last October. “We’re just starting to marshal more controlled scientific evidence.”
Research looking at what happens when people are taken out of the office and placed into the forest has been going on for over 30 years, according to the Department of Conservation in New York, which has been compiling such studies. Most of them, however, even today, conduct such research through self-reported surveys of test subjects on how they feel. It’s just been in the last decade when scientists have started to investigate the true physiological effects. What they’ve been finding is that time spent around trees lowers blood pressure and that exercising in the woods reduces blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. The correlation here - those benefits help to decrease levels of depression, anxiety, anger and fatigue. A 2016 study published in The Health Environments Research & Design Journal found that even just listening to nature sounds like ocean waves for just 15 minutes dramatically reduced both pulse rate and tension in people, compared to those who listened to classical music or nothing at all.
Going out in nature has proven such an effective therapy that groups have popped up prescribing it to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Groups like Outward Bound offer wilderness courses to veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, helping thousands of military veterans and returning service members readjust to life back home through the healing power of the wilderness.
Meanwhile, other organizations are working to establish nature as a viable therapy with mainstream medicine and insurance companies. In 2013, Keltner helped found the Great Outdoor Lab, a think tank design to research the health benefits of being outside, ultimately to establish nature as a go-to prescription for a range of illnesses, from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression to traumatic brain injury and even dementia.
Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for a prescription for the healing benefits of nature. You just need to go outside!