Nature Benefits Your Mind and Body

By Barbara Pierce

F.T. Proctor Park in Utica is a favorite for those who want to go for a walk or just relax. Photos courtesy of Daniel Baldwin.

“Being in nature makes me happy!” said Amanda Shanahan of Syracuse, manager of Employee Wellbeing at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

“It puts my life into perspective, reminding me that I’m part of something much bigger. It lets me connect with this beautiful land we live in, while I disconnect from day-to-day expectations and technology.”

For most of us, our connection to nature has become tenuous. We live in air-conditioned buildings cleaned with antibacterial spray. Our food is sprayed and wrapped in plastic. As Shanahan said, we’re involved with technology every day. We’re drawn to technology, not trees. Kids don’t play outside like we did when we were kids. Most don’t even walk to school.

Yes, nature is beautiful. It’s intriguing. It’s awesome when you stop and experience it. Not only that, it’s our life support system.

Being in nature has a measurable effect on our mental and physical health.

Shanahan identified some of the health benefits: Being in nature lowers our stress levels and our blood pressure. It improves the functioning of our brain. It enhances our mood. It makes us happy, as she said.

Amanda Shanahan of Syracuse, manager of Employee Wellbeing at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield: “Time with nature is time to recharge, allowing us to better cope with life’s stresses.”

A significant amount of research points to the same conclusion. We stand to benefit tremendously from a strong connection with nature.

For example, one study showed that hospitalized patients in rooms with windows that looked out on nature had shorter stays, made fewer negative comments and took fewer painkillers than patients whose windows faced a wall.

Another study found that people who lived in areas with a higher percentage of trees and green space had significantly lower stress levels than those living in urban areas.

Other research found that people who merely looked at images of natural scenes for a few minutes showed a marked reduction in activity of the brain responsible for processing emotions, mainly fear and anxiety.

The Amish live on traditional farms, using horses and plows and the children play in the barn spending time with the livestock as they did the 19th century. They have lower levels of chronic inflammation. In affluent developed countries, the rates of allergies, autoimmune disorders and irritable bowel disorder have increased.

There’s something about nature that soothes, relaxes and heals our entire being.

“The demands of everyday life often overtax our brain and body,” said Shanahan. “Time with nature is time to recharge, allowing us to better cope with life’s stresses. Our brains don’t have to work the same way to pay attention to nature, which allows time for restoration.”

Spending time in nature, looking at plants, water, birds and other aspects of nature gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break, allowing us to focus better and renew our ability to be patient.

Taking a walk in nature can help significantly boost your metabolism, protecting you from a range of health ailments including diabetics and obesity.

While the idea of spending time in nature is not new, reconnecting to nature as a healing practice first took root in Japan and was is called “forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere.”

As the hustle and bustle of daily life has continued to increase, forest bathing has become a part of preventative healthcare in many countries around the world and, in the last several years, has quickly and quietly gained steam in the U.S.

Forest bathing is a slow walk-through nature where you focus on taking in the environment with all your senses, noticing the smells, the tastes and the sounds. Watch the sunlight filter through the greenery, taste the freshness in the air, smell nature’s many fragrances, feel the texture of tree bark, rocks and earth, listen for the wildlife.

When was the last time you spent time in nature? If it’s been long, put this at the top of your list of things to do and make it a priority to spend time in nature, to rest and rejuvenate. It’ll definitely be worth every moment.

Favorite Spots

Shanahan’s favorite places to experience nature are the Fulton Chain of Lakes, Old Forge and Inlet (off Route 28).

And there’s Proctor Park in Utica, Lock 20 Canal Park in Marcy, Pixley Falls in Boonville. The Adirondacks with a state park and the Catskills with a state park.

What are your favorites? When will you revisit them? Or you could look for new favorites on the internet or poll your friends. The great outdoors is a natural stress reducer and always a healthy choice. You’re never wrong when you step outside, even for just a few minutes.

If you can’t get outside, even viewing green spaces from your window or watching a nature documentary will lower your stress levels.