Going outdoors for fun is reason enough to enjoy nature. Just ask an angler landing a big bass or a hiker smitten by a crimson-feathered cardinal perched on a green pine tree bough. Science, however, is adding one more big reason for contact with nature — better health.
Even a light dose of nature helps, says Anand Chockalingam, a cardiologist at University of Missouri Health Care in Columbia.
The heart doctor enjoys hiking in Missouri’s parks and forests. He recognizes the restive feeling of well-being that settles in his mind as he walks among the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. But he’s also seen positive health results when his patients recovering from heart disease or surgery head outdoors. Mind and body are intertwined, and nature and the outdoors cannurture both.
“We need to relax and refresh the mind,” Chockalingam said. Having fun outdoors provides physical exercise that helps the body. But also, “you feel more alive, more confident. Physically, we may be exhausted, but mentally we feel more rejuvenated, more alive.”
Saying nature is good for the body and soul is not new.
“To the sick, the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery,” nature essayist Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, published in 1854. Then he made the point that experiencing nature close to home is as viable as traveling the globe.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike,” conservation giant John Muir wrote in The Yosemite, published in 1912.
It’s doubtful a Missouri turkey hunter who has experienced the pulse-quickening, surround-sound chirps, clucks, and gobbles of birds bringing late-April woods to life at first light would disagree. Missourians have long appreciated their rivers, lakes, fields, and forests.
Modern science, though, is beginning to measure more precisely beneficial relationships between people and nature.
SCIENCE IS CATCHING UP
Exposure to greenspace “reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure,” according to a study published in 2018 by researchers at the University of East Anglia in England. The researchers wanted to know if nature really provides a health boost. They reviewed 140 studies involving 290 million people from 20 countries and concluded that people with more contact with nature are healthier.
“We found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits,” the authors said of the study published in Environmental Research, a science journal.
In one example, the studies noted lower levels of salivary cortisol, a hormone associated with stress secreted by adrenal glands, in people exposed to nature. That has implications for healthier memory, blood pressure, heart rate, and other important functions. How natural settings affect the senses influences the mind, which interacts with the human body’s complex hormonal, muscular, and nervous systems.