The grounding feeling of calmness that you get when outside in a beautiful setting; that relaxing feeling that really puts the world into perspective. From the poet Whitman to the mathematical genius Einstein, many historical figures have embraced the positive effects of the great outdoors. Scientists around the world are finding real proof that this feeling isn’t just in your head, but that time spent hiking, camping, backpacking, or just being outdoors in general can result in real, honest to goodness health benefits. From the smell of pine trees to the sound of birdsong, nature can have amazing effects on your body and mind. While here at Advanced Primate we have always believed that humans have become disconnected from nature, we now have the proof to back up our claims that getting outside is really for the best.
Leading scientists have two main theories on what happens to our bodies when we interact with nature: Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) and Attention Restoration Theory (ART). While both theories propose that nature helps make people happier and smarter, ART focuses on the brain’s attention network while SRT focuses on our physiological response. In a nutshell, ART-based scientists suggest that seeing nature lets our brain chill out and relax, while SRT-focused scientists assert that being outside lowers anxiety and stress-related chemicals in our bodies. Either way, we get some awesome benefits from a little outside time.
But what exactly is it about nature that makes our bodies so happy? It is a chemical smell that changes the biochemistry of our blood? Is it a soothing sound that melts away stress? Or maybe a visual stimulus that blocks out pain and agitation? The answer is: yes, to all of the above. To truly explore the immense benefits of the great outdoors, let’s start with how we experience things through our five senses.
Imagine hiking in a forest, surrounded by tall, commanding trees. The hazy sunlight filters through the canopy and there is only the muffled sound of the breeze and far off birdsong. Take a deep breath. What do you smell? That special smell that forests have comes from a chemical substance called phytoncides, which are protective chemicals emitted from trees and plants. While its main purpose is to protect the trees from harmful insects and other potential threats, this forest aroma has incredibly positive side effects on the human body. These antibacterial happy little forest chemicals can bring about a 53% stress reduction and a 5%-7% reduction in blood pressure. Just by taking a sniff of forest air!
Here is a good trivia question: what do you call the smell of dry earth after it rains? This wonderfully distinct smell is called petrichor, from the Greek words meaning “stone” and “blood of the gods”. When water droplets hit the soil, a chemical is released into the air called Geosmin. Geosmin comes from a type of bacteria that is used in some commercial antibiotics. Each big lungful of this post-rain smell is like a shot of antivirals straight to the body. There has even been studies on Geosmin’s potential benefits for cancer patients. So go ahead, tree sniffers of the world, gather your camping gear and go on an outdoor adventure to get yourself some of those healthy and happy-making nose chemicals.
You can smell nature, you can touch nature (usually), but please don’t go around licking nature unless you know what you’re doing.
Today, many doctors, dentists, and other medical professionals have pictures of natural scenes in their offices. We have one man to thank for this: Roger Ulrich. What does a psychologist and architect from the 1950s have to do with nature photos you may ask? Ulrich researched post-surgery hospital recovery times between patients in rooms with a view of green space versus patients without. Those with a natural view needed less pain medication, had better attitudes, and needed fewer postoperative days overall. Similar studies have been carried out in business offices, schools, housing projects, and prisons and yielded similar results. These studies have shown that having a view of nature increases worker productivity, decreases job stress, and helps bring about higher academic grades and less aggression in inner-city residents. One amazing study even found that people in rooms with potted plants were nicer!
Have you noticed that sitting in a loud room can actually physically tire you? Background noise increases subconscious stress. It can cause an increase in hypertension in adults and systolic blood pressure in kids. A 2005 study out of Europe explored the effects of schools located near major airports on children’s reading comprehension, memory and hyperactivity. For every 5-decibel increase in noise, reading scores dropped the equivalent of a 2-month delay. The incredible negative effects of constant noise on humans and wildlife influenced the U.S. National Park Service to create a division called The Natural Sounds and Night Sky Division. Joshua Smyth, a biobehavioral health psychologist, believes that humans should think of soundscapes as a type of medicine. Twenty minutes a day of increased natural sounds and decreased anthropogenic (human-made) noise can be more effective in stress reduction even than meditation.
Full Sensory Immersion
In order to achieve the wonderful benefits of nature, you can replicate a lot of these experiences inside your own house. Try picking up an aromatherapy device for your bedroom and filling it with pine scented oil to emulate camping, listen to bird song on earphones while working, or make sure your windows look out onto even a sliver of green space. However, if you want to truly unlock nature’s potential health benefits, you’ll need more than a few minutes smelling, hearing, and seeing nature. Science has found that to reap the maximum amount of the good stuff, we need at least five hours per month in the great outdoors. That could mean a quick thirty minute hike a couple of times a week, or two to three days per month of camping.
As Florence Williams says in her book The Nature Fix, “It’s not just the smell of a cypress, or the sounds of the birds, or the color green that unlocks the pathway to health in our brains. We’re full sensory beings, or at least we were once built to be. Isn’t it possible that it’s only when you open all the doors – literally and figuratively – that the real magic happens? For that, you need more than a few moments on a screen or in nature.”
So go for it- pack up your outdoor gear and go sniff that tree, revel in that bird song, go for a hike in the backcountry, camp in the forest, visit national parks, and soak in the sun! I promise, it’s for your own good. They don’t call it the GREAT outdoors for nothing!