By Paula Felps
Moving around is good for your cardiovascular health. Doing it outside is even better.
You probably heard it from your mother first: “Go outside and play.” As it turns out, mom wasn’t just getting you out of her hair; she was doing something good for your health. In recent years, research has looked at how being outside can improve our health and wellbeing, and it makes a convincing argument for lacing up those shoes and taking a hike. And, the deeper researchers dig, the more they discover about just how good being outside is.
Most recently, a report published in the journal Scientific Reports found that people who spend at least two hours a week in nature enjoy better health than those who don’t get outside.
“There are many reasons why spending time in nature may be good for health and wellbeing,” says Terry Hartig, Ph.D. of Uppsala University in Sweden, who co-authored the study. “They include getting perspective on life circumstances, reducing stress and enjoying quality time with friends and family.”
He adds that the research on nature’s benefit is compelling enough that he believes health practitioners should start recommending that patients spend time outside as part of their overall health program.
The new findings arrive on the heels of a study in Environmental Research that showed, more specifically, that being in nature was associated with lowered incidents of coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke and depression, among other benefits.
It’s something that heart patient Scott Eitman knew long before any study confirmed it.
“My buddies and I are constantly trying to figure out ways to get outside,” says Scott, who is president of Chapter 138 in Cleveland, Ohio. He was first diagnosed with a heart murmur in 1988 at the age of 24 and had a heart valve replaced with a Homograft valve a decade later. Scott had lived an active, athletic life before his diagnosis, and continued to use physical activity — preferably outside — as a way of maintaining his health.
As an avid bicyclist, he braves frigid temperatures in Cleveland to get in outdoor rides all 12 months of the year, although he fills in with indoor cycling when the weather won’t allow him to get outside.
“It’s always more enjoyable to do it outside,” he says. “You feel the breeze blowing in your face, there are things to look at, you can talk to your buddies while you ride. It’s a great way to connect with people and with nature.”
The Healing Power of Nature
Biophilia, or our innate attraction to connect with nature, has gained more attention from scientists and doctors in recent years, thanks to its proven effects on both our physical and mental health. The strategic use of nature, called biophilic design, in offices, nursing homes and health care facilities has been shown to reduce stress, improve cognitive function and to speed the healing process.
The good news is that, for most of us, this form of healing is easily accessible. A simple walk around the block or a stroll in the park has the dual benefit of providing cardiovascular exercise along with a connection with nature. Dr. John Ratey, M.D., author of the book, “Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Affliction of Civilization,” says that being active in nature hits a reset button both physically and mentally.
“When you’re walking [outside], you have to be in the moment,” he says. “You have to pay attention to what’s going on around you.”
That, he says, helps create greater mindfulness and lowers stress levels — a fact that multiple studies have reinforced. Conversely, if you’re walking on a treadmill while reading a magazine or watching television, you could be missing out on same major health benefits. “It takes you away from the experience of walking,” he says.
Take a Forest Bath
In Japan, nature is considered such an important part of health that there’s a name for it: shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” The Japanese Society of Forest Medicine has produced numerous studies to show both the medical and mental health benefits of connecting with nature, and the Japanese government has invested more than $4 million in research to prove its benefits. The government also has funded 100 “forest therapy bases” throughout the country to advance nature medicine and provide spaces for people to walk and enjoy the benefits of nature.
A recent study on the effects of shinrin- yoku on heart health found significant cardiovascular benefits from a 12- to 15-minute walk among participants. The benefits included lower blood pressure and a lower heart rate; the outcomes were comparable to having done yoga or meditation. Study participants also reported feeling less anxious or hostile and more relaxed — factors which also are key to good heart health.
While researchers still aren’t clear on what, exactly, triggers such a positive mental and physical reaction, the evidence of the benefits of being in nature are well substantiated.
And Scott says that getting out in nature is so beneficial that everyone should make it part of their daily practice.
“It makes you feel good about what you’ve done and how your body feels,” he says. “Even if you just get out and walk your dog every day, you’ll notice a difference. If you don’t have a dog, find someone else to walk with. Anything you can find to do to get outside and move is going to make you feel more alive.”