Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Alongside the incredible advances we have made as a civilized species, is it possible that we forget we are also part of nature, not just onlookers? Beyond industrial exploits, interacting with nature enhances health and healing. This inherent wisdom held by certain communities has given rise to research and deliberate practices of ecotherapy, to support mental and physical health. In essence, interacting more with nature may be as effective as a medical prescription in some instances.
With urbanization, longer work hours and the convenience of indoor entertainment, city dwellers have limited exposure to nature. As time goes, the percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas is growing – this was 55% in 2018 and is estimated to be 68% by 2050. While this mass exodus is necessary for economic opportunities, disassociation from nature can negatively impact our mental and physical well-being. People who spend more time indoors, particularly starting from childhood, tend to be more sedentary, disconnected from society, eat energy-dense and unhealthy foods, and have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and markers of inflammation in their blood.
With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, country lock downs have confined urban populations to indoor spaces even more - those without a yard have probably felt the most confined in this time! As restrictions are gradually eased, allowing more time outdoors, this is a great time to consider the numerous benefits of being active in natural environments.
We can identify several benefits that automatically come with outdoor environments:
Low cost and easy to access
Exposure to sunlight, a natural source of Vitamin D
Increases sensory stimulation
Breaks the monotony of exercising indoors
Easier to observe social distancing
Connects us to nature and motivates us to take care of it
Suitable activities for all ages
Studies show that outdoor exercise is associated with positive health effects including:
Lower risk of developing diseases of lifestyle - heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, stress, and anxiety
Improved mood and management of depression from a rise in serotonin levels
Increase in concentration, creativity and short-term memory
Tendency to exercise for longer, resulting in a higher caloric expenditure.
Greening Indoor Spaces
If it is a challenge to access natural environments regularly, we can still experience health benefits by bringing nature into our indoor spaces. Studies have shown that offices and lunch areas with plants could increase productivity, lower stress, improve mood and general well-being. In clinical settings, plants or views of nature have been associated with faster recovery rates from medical conditions and surgeries, decreased pain perception and greater pain thresholds. Certain plants can also cleanse the air from pollutants and generally add to the aesthetics of indoor spaces.
Try to interact with natural environments as much as you can and encourage this in children from an early age, to cultivate a lifelong habit and reap the mental and physical health benefits. Make the most of your local surroundings and research other areas that can inspire social excursions with family or friends. When we can engage in social activities, look into regular outdoor events that occur in your city.
Yours in Wellness,
This article was featured in Harare Magazine
Summers, J., & Vivian, D. (2018). Ecotherapy – A Forgotten Ecosystem. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 1389.
Walsh, J., & B, M. (2019). 2019 Wellness Trends, from Global Wellness Summit. Miami: Global Wellness Institute.