The Science of Nature Exposure: How Being Outdoors Can Promote Health & Affect Our Biology
“At some point in life, the world’s beauty becomes enough.” – Toni Morrison
“I never get tired of looking at the blue sky.” – Vincent Van Gough
“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” – Henry David Thoreau
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” – Lao Tzu
Few things are contemplated over, alluded to, and marveled at than nature. Over the last several thousand years, since the earliest forms of human writing, the natural world has been inseparable from the human world.
Yet, with the growth of urban centers, contamination of water sources, and vast deforestation, some human societies have slowly separated themselves from the natural world that provides them with air to breathe and food to eat.
Health scientists, too, have contemplated the role of nature in health and disease. Through the science of nature exposure, architects, business owners, and health practitioners have gained a better understanding of the place that regular exposure to and interaction with nature has in public health strategies.
In this article, we explain the science behind nature exposure, and we summarize some of the key research that describes the relationship between nature exposure and health. Finally, we provide you with some concrete tips for how to take advantage of the benefits of nature exposure in your and your clients’ lives.
What Is Nature Exposure?
“Nature exposure” is a term that was born in the field of environmental psychology or ecopsychology. Nature exposure is just what it sounds like—experiencing nature with your senses. When you have enough exposure to real or simulated nature, your mind and body will likely experience benefits.
How Does Nature Exposure Work?
Several researchers have theorized and explored the possible mechanisms by which nature exposure may benefit a person’s health and wellbeing.
- Stress reduction theory: Exposure to natural environments facilitated positive emotional reactions, which have a restorative effect.
- Attention restoration theory: Nature exposure encourages low-effort brain function, which facilitates recovery from fatigue.
- Health through social cohesion: Different researchers have theorized that nature exposure increases a sense of community, shared norms and values, positive and friendly relationships, feelings of acceptance, enhanced social connections, and enhanced social contacts.
- Nature encourages physical activity: Having access to nature increases engagement in physical activity, which may result in better health behavior and health outcomes.
Even though scientists now have a greater understanding of the possible mechanisms behind nature stimuli and their effects on the brain, it is important to note that even the earliest health practitioners and philosophers held a “nature benefit assumption,” or the assumption that being in nature was generally good for humans.
In fact, the positive relationship between nature exposure and health and wellbeing is so strong that one group of researchers from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health recommend that people spend at least 120 minutes a week in nature to fully reap the benefits.
What Does the Research Say About the Relationship Between Nature Exposure and Health?
Nature exposure Is restorative.
Restorative environments are those that allow and promote the recovery from an inability to concentrate, elevated physiological arousal, and negative emotions that are related to stress and fatigue.
Urban environments are filled with stimulation and objects that compete to capture our attention. Nature, on the other hand, is filled with intriguing but slow stimuli, which allow the viewers to direct their attention to what most intrigues them. Nature, thus, gives individuals the ability to replenish and restore.
A systematic review of studies found that natural environments may have a direct and positive impact on overall wellbeing.
In fact, time spent in exercise and being outdoors increased measures of life satisfaction and relaxation and diminished the need for recovery from work.
Exposure to nature can help you recover from stress.
Researchers hypothesized that people could recover faster from a stressful experience by being exposed to nature rather than urban settings. To test the hypothesis, researchers had 120 people watch a stressful movie and then exposed them to videos of either urban or nature imagery. They measured stress through heart rate, muscle tension, skin conductance, and pulse transit time.
Researchers found that recovery from stress was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to natural rather than urban environments.
Populations exposed to the greenest environments have the lowest levels of health inequality related to income deprivation.
All-cause mortality and mortality from circulatory diseases are higher in lower-income populations. Studies have shown that exposure to green spaces has an independent effect on health and health-related behaviors. Researchers hypothesized that in areas with more green space, the impact of income on health inequalities would diminish.
By examining data from a population in England, researchers confirmed their hypothesis. They found that populations that were exposed to the greenest environments also had the lowest levels of health inequality related to low income.
You can get natural vitamin D being outdoors, and vitamin D helps fight seasonal depression.
Healthy levels of circulating vitamin D are correlated with lower rates of depression. Humans have inactive vitamin D in the skin, and it’s made active by the sun, making people who live further north and further south have greater rates of vitamin D deficiency and depression in the winter months.
If a person is vitamin D deficient, exposure to the sun is one way to increase circulating vitamin D levels.
However, because the thinning ozone layer puts you at risk of sunburn for being outdoors without sunscreen, you may not be able to safely get your daily dose of vitamin D through the sun. The CDC states that the longer time you spend in the sun, the greater your cancer risk, but vitamin D conversion doesn’t increase after a certain point. In these cases, taking supplements and eating vitamin D-rich foods are other ways you can increase your vitamin D levels.
Nature exposure may promote cooperation and environmentally sustainable behavior.
A psychological study examined the behavioral effects of exposing people to nature videos versus videos of built spaces.
The researchers found that, regardless of the subjects’ mood, nature produced more cooperative and sustainable behavior, or a willingness to work together to find a solution that benefited other humans and the environment, and higher social value orientation scores.
Nature exposure has a positive effect on immune system functioning.
The elimination of natural spaces and drastic changes to lifestyles and ecosystems as a result of increased urban development has brought on the question of whether a lack of nature exposure may have an impact on immune health.
A literature review examined the potential beneficial effects of nature exposure on human immune responses. The review included 33 studies and concluded that nature exposure has an impact on immune health parameters, including:
- Anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-asthmatic effects
- Increased NK (natural killer) cell activity
- Potential decreased expression of pro-inflammatory molecules, infiltration of leukocytes, and release of cytotoxic mediators
However, the review noted that many studies had weak designs, and the findings merit further examination in large, well-designed studies.
Having a view of plants may promote creativity.
A study carried out by Shibata and Suzuki, experts on the science of nature exposure, found that having plants in a subject’s workspace had a positive effect on their ability to carry out an association task. The association task was built on creative abilities, meaning that having a view of plants, especially leafy plants, could increase creativity.
Indoor Nature Exposure (INE) has many of the benefits to your health as outdoor nature exposure
A 2021 systematic review of evidence found that indoor nature exposure, through either real or representations of nature-based objects, has physical, psychological, and social benefits.
The physical benefits of INE include:
- Reduction in blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature, and skin conductance
- Improved general health and increased neural activity
- Higher pain tolerance
The psychological benefits of INE include:
- Improved mood and feelings of presence
- Increased restoration, attention, cognition, performance, job satisfaction, and environmental attractiveness
- A decrease in perceived stress, fatigue, and negative emotions
The social benefits of INE include:
- Potential for social interaction and engagement
Tips for Integrating This Research Into Your Life and Practice
How do you take this research and apply it in your everyday life? Here are seven tips that ground the research in strategies that you can integrate into your daily choices to benefit from nature exposure.
Note: The language in this section is directed toward you, but this evidence may be equally beneficial to your clients. Feel free to integrate these research-based tips and suggestions into your holistic health coaching practice as you see fit.
If access to outdoor nature is limited, bring nature indoors.
While potted plants are a great option, they may not be a realistic option for everyone. However, research shows that photos and paintings of trees, grass, and nature, and even wooden furnishings have direct positive impacts on your physical and mental health.
When possible, always choose the window seat.
Research shows that having a view of vegetation or woods increased performance and mood. When you have the opportunity to take a gander outside, take the time to do so.
Skip the treadmill and go for a walk or run in the park.
When you plan your regular exercise, make a point to skip the treadmill every now and then and go for a walk or run in the outdoors, ideally a place with a view of trees, mountains, plants, or grass. Research shows that even short walks in nature can have a positive impact on your wellbeing.
When you’re stressed, take a walk outside.
After meeting a deadline or finishing a stressful meeting, you may unwind more completely and faster when you are exposed to nature. Take a walk outside or look out the window toward some trees or flowers to decompress.
When you’re indoors and need a dose of nature, use media.
Sometimes, going for a walk or a hike isn’t possible. If you need to decompress or need a source of inspiration, take several minutes to listen to nature sounds on Spotify or watch clips of nature on YouTube.
Plan a trip to nature.
Are you thinking of a weekend getaway or your next vacation? Why not plan on a place where you’ll get to spend some time in the natural world? If you aren’t interested in camping, you can take a trip to the beach or a nearby lake with access to more amenities. You will gain emotional and mental health benefits by experiencing nature while also getting a dose of vitamin D.
Support efforts to green your town and city.
Access to green spaces means that everyone in your community can take advantage of the benefits of nature exposure. Get involved in city efforts to make your community greener.
Nature exposure has several benefits for your short- and long-term health. Take a moment to assess your current access to real nature, and ask yourself how to enjoy it more. If your access to nature is limited, consider adding images of nature or potted plants to your home or office or playing media with recordings of nature images and sounds.
In the words of Angie Weiland-Crosby, “In a world of constant change and streaming technology, I find solace in the forest where a tree remains a tree.”