Nature therapy is a preventative, medicinal tool that utilizes the relationship humans have with nature for wellbeing. Specific techniques include forest bathing and green and blue exercise (exercise outdoors in green or blue/water spaces). Forest bathing, which is essentially practicing mindful presence in nature, improves cardiovascular parameters, mental health (mood, reduced stress), and even modifies the immune system by increasing the number and activity of natural killer cells. Green exercise promotes improved self-esteem, mood, intention for future exercise, social cohesion, and quality of life, while decreasing perceived rate of work (exertion), stress, and depression. Blue exercise is less studied but research supports similar benefits for physical activity in and around natural aquatic environments.
Most research on activity out of doors is specific to adults, but the research examining children in nature is thought-provoking. Nature promotes more physical activity than school grounds and physical education classes and even closes the play gap between boys and girls. Research demonstrates that nature improves children’s cognitive abilities, attention, creativity, imagination, problem-solving, self-discipline, self-regulation, social interaction and learning, and test scores, even reducing symptoms of ADHD
The presence of nature alone is healing and promotes wellbeing by itself. Having greenspace visible for patients in hospitals reduced their length of stay and need for pain medication; greenspace near residences has reduced risk of mortality from cancer and common diseases, such as ischemic heart disease. The reverse appears to be true too – when trees died in an area from the ash borer, mortality rates for humans increased. Greenspace is even associated with reduced rates of diseases type 2 diabetes. These benefits remain even after researchers control for exercise; that is, these benefits are not accrued by individuals exercising in these green spaces.
Scientists are examining what it is specifically about nature that is so profoundly healing and resonant with people – how does it change our nervous systems and stress levels? Does it cause mental relaxation which trickles down to reduced stress? Is it the patterns in nature, the colors, the smells, or sounds? Overall, the answer most likely resides in our evolutionary history – we have co-evolved with the natural world for millennia, and as such the benefits of being in nature likely result from our shared history. The exact mechanism of how nature works might not matter for most of us. We do need to know that there is something THERE – provocative, necessary, curative, and cognate with our well-being. Further, some argue that greenspace and access to it is not a luxury but a necessity.
With our current lifestyles, we are essentially in artificial environments most of our waking hours, and yet, we have a biological and evolutionary need to connect with nature. Nature is medicine. When was the last time you were outside or even gazed out the window at the natural window that surrounds you? How can you make time for more nature in your life?
Listen to Dr. Mitch discuss nature therapy with Sue Omanson of the Naperville Parks District: https://www.napervilleparks.org/podcast/s5-episode-02-nature-therapy
Watch Dr. Mitch discuss green exercise in a webinar with The Conservation Foundation: https://youtu.be/0TjgC1i3GAI
Read Dr. Mitch’s article about the utilization of nature therapy in the physical therapy profession: https://ignitewell-being.com/nature-therapy-a-tool-for-the-physical-therapy-professional/
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch (They/She), PT (DPT), CSE and sexuality educator, RYT 500, reiki master, shamanic practitioner
To learn more about green exercise, mindfulness practices incorporating nature (including new moon circles) or working with me one on one to incorporate nature into your fitness or wellness practice, please email me, Dr. Allison Mitch, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Studies on PubMed, searching nature therapy, green exercise, forest bathing, etc
Green Exercise: Linking Nature, Health, and Well-being. Edited by Jo Barton et al.
Your Guide to Forest Bathing by M.Amos Clifford
Balanced and Barefoot by Angela J. Hanscom
The Nature Fix by Florence Williams