The benefits of nature for your health

14355089_1225781907486235_713034772303256260_n

Ever felt drained? Ever felt that sharp, stinging pain piercing through your back as you lean, slouched over the wooden tables in Chifley? Like when you are trying to reach the word count or finish cramming in all your references before clicking submit on Turnitin, after which you hurry straight back to your room.

We’ve all been there, and it isn’t much fun. It may be surprising, though, to realise that a simple yet effective remedy to those study-time blues is literally right outside. When was the last time you took a few minutes from your day and enjoyed the natural environment around you? Not many of us can say too often.

As students navigating late nights, long days at the library, the rush of exam periods, assessment pile-ups and hours in front of computer screens, we are often faced with major health concerns. From depression to colds, anxiety to that sluggish, lethargic feeling, the pressure of studying can be intense. We’re always on the hunt for ways to reduce stress levels. We visit health practitioners and other medical professionals who may overlook the great outdoors as a health buffer, and we may overlook it ourselves, instead using nights out or copious amounts of coffee to keep pushing on. Our busy routines may mean we spend less time in the great outdoors than is ideal. Active lifestyles, wellbeing and contact with nature all tend to impact one another, and the consequences can be either positive or negative.

As our western society submerges deeper into urban areas and urban lifestyles, our connectedness with nature, and the potential health benefits of this relationship, has tended to wane. Interaction with nature is proven to have material health benefits, like reducing blood pressure, while providing other positive opportunities, like encouraging individuals to exercise, or interact with one another for recreation. For many, these benefits represent a higher quality of life and health. Too often though, we find ourselves trapped by never ending to-do lists that don’t allow us to breathe, and we forget to escape outside for a moment. So the question is, how can we actively change this dynamic?

There are several possibilities. One helpful practice is found in Japanese culture where traditional Japanese medicine has established the preventative health care therapy of shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’. Less odd than it sounds, shinrin-yoku is the simple practice of taking in the forest atmosphere. The goal is to fully immerse all your senses and adopt a calm, meditative state. Scientifically tested, forest bathing offers both mental and physical health benefits. While mentally improving mood, focus, intuition and the ability to connect with other individuals, the practice also offers physical benefits as participants experience increases in energy levels, a boost in their immune systems and a reduction in blood pressure.

If you don’t have time to bathe yourself in forest therapy, research has suggested even quick bursts of nature may be beneficial. One index, the Inclusion of Nature in Self (INS) scale, can be used to identity one’s connectedness with nature. With this scale, it is possible to compare different levels of health and their relationship with nature. Researchers have used such methods to examine a range of behaviors, and isolate some common benefits of interacting with nature – findings suggest that spending only 5 minutes looking out the window may reduce levels of stress, anxiety and depression, while regular exposure to nature may also boost your immune system, ability to sleep and overall happiness.

The point of all this is that finding the time to enjoy the natural environment can be much easier than it may seem.

It is as simple as a change in scenery, taking a moment to intentionally appreciate nature during a study break, or getting yourself out of a library to eat lunch under a tree. Even if you take a more active approach and develop habits to regularly immerse yourself in nature, it doesn’t have to be complicated. A 15-minute jog, or even a stroll around your block, could boost your mood and productivity throughout the day. Choosing to walk or ride your bike to and around campus instead of driving is another simple option. Plus, as your exposure to the natural environment increases, it will becomes even easier, almost addictive – all while improving your overall wellbeing and ability to cope with the daily stresses of a busy life.

We all want the opportunity to stroll around outside and breathe, relax, touch, listen, wander and free our minds of anxiety. It is easier than you may think, and with the numerous benefits that await you, you now have an excuse to stop and smell the wattle. So if you’re stuck in the study-time blues, drop your notebook, step away from your computer, and head out into nature. Doctor’s orders.

Photo by Zuhal Hamidi.