A Walk in Nature is Good for Your Health Even if it’s “Brrr” Outside

By Florence Williams, Guest Writer

By all accounts, the weather for most of this winter has been unusually lousy all up and down the East Coast. As the Washington Post’s weather team explains it, an amplified jet stream pattern has created a “sliding board of significant cold air deliveries,” not to mention broken chunks of the polar vortex barreling down from Hudson Bay. Translation: Brrr.

Photo by Mark Ellison

Photo by Mark Ellison

Yesterday morning was cold and gray in D.C., the temperature on my phone reading 28 degrees. On the streets and sidewalks, icy patches remained of the previous day’s sleet.

Still, I knew I should go for my regular walk along the C&O Canal. It’s mostly scenic, although to get there I have to cross a freeway. And in winter, with the leaves gone, that freeway sounds and looks closer to the canal once you’re on it. I knew my feet would be cold and the ground hard, potentially treacherous is spots. No doubt about it; walking in the dead of DC winter is kind of a drag.

I know what you’re expecting me to say, that once I was out there it wasn’t so bad and I had a rewarding experience communing with the ice crystals and the clouds and the bracing breeze. But I’m not going to say that, because the fact is I didn’t enjoy it very much.  On these cold days (and we’ve had a lot of them – January and February so far have been among Washington’s very coldest), it takes me a full 20 minutes of vigorous walking to stop being stiff with shivers. Even after that point, I still grumble. Oh man, it sucks out here. Sometimes the wind bites into my collar and the balls of my feet go numb. I’d rather be holding a hot cup of tea and wearing sheepskin slippers in the breeze of my heat duct.

Cross-country skiing is a great way to enjoy the solitude and beauty of nature in winter.  Photo by Mark Ellison

Cross-country skiing is a great way to enjoy the solitude and beauty of nature in winter.
Photo by Mark Ellison

So why do I go? We all need a little sunshine, but this dark winter I haven’t even had that justification.  I go because of how I feel after. On these days, I like not the walking but the having walked.  I like the satisfaction of conquering my couch potato instincts, but more than that I tend to have a good day.  I can focus at work, my mood is even and I tend to sleep better.

Neuropsych research backs me up.  Marc Berman, now at the University of South Carolina, found that even when his research subjects walked through an arboretum in a Michigan winter, they performed better on cognitive tests than they had before the walk and better than subjects who walked through an urban setting.

We might not always crave spinach either, but that doesn’t mean we should only reach for pie. Regular walks in nature are usually pleasant, but even when they’re not, they’re “good for us.” Of course saying something is good for you is a sure way to make it a chore. How to avoid that? Other experts suggest keeping it fun, maybe by walking with friends or keeping your mind engaged. For me, knowing I’ll  sleep and work well is usually (but not always) motivation enough. For those other days, please pass the tea.

Florence Williams

Florence Williams

Florence Williams
Florence Williams is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer for New York TimesNew York Times MagazineSlate, Mother JonesHigh Country NewsO-Oprah, W., Bicycling and numerous other publications. Her first book, BREASTS: A Natural and Unnatural History  (W.W. Norton 2012) received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in science and technology and the 2013 Audie in general nonfiction. It was also named a notable book of 2012 by the New York Times.
Advertisements

Five Ways Nature Can Prepare Your Brain for Success in 2014

Organizations are always looking for ways to improve workplace productivity, develop leaders, and help employees work more efficiently. Spending all day inside, in a cubicle that reverberates with stress drains attention, saps creativity, reduces productivity, and negatively impacts leadership ability. To lead effectively the brain needs to be at optimal functioning capacity.

Cross-country skiing on the Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina, USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Cross-country skiing on the Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina, USA)
Photo by Mark Ellison

As we kick off 2014, why not resolve to deal more effectively with your workplace stress in a way that will jump-start your brain for success: spend time in nature. There is a growing body of research that shows time in nature prepares the brain for optimal functioning. Time in nature also helps to tap into the things we are passion about, develop a sense of purpose and increase productivity.

Going into nature provides restoration and the opportunity to disconnect or escape phones, computers, televisions,noise and other stress inducing variables which have a negative impact on physical and mental health. Here are five ways getting away from stress and  spending time in nature can impact your effectiveness at work, and possibly make your boss happier:

1. Improve attention capacity and the ability to focus: Stephen and Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory is based on the concept of soft fascination, or the soothing sights and sounds of nature that are relaxing, allowing attention capacities to rest,  leaving room for reflection. One type of soft fascination is the sound of birds, which a recent study found to be the most preferred form of fascination.

Sunset at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

Sunset at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park
Photo by Mark Ellison

2. Enhance creativity: Research by faculty at the University of Utah and University of Kansas found that spending time in nature can improve creativity up to 50%. Being more creative on the job means you can generate better ideas and more innovative solutions to problems.

3. Increase cognitive ability: Spending time in nature increases cognitive abilities. Part of this is clearing the mind of distractions.

4. Improve memory: Heavy multitasking can make it difficult to remember things. Research has found that time in nature positively impacts the ability to remember.

5. Reduce stress and elevate mood: Our brains on stress are a jumbled mess. The stress that builds up in our mind impacts the entire body in a negative way if not properly dealt with. This can have negative consequences on the ability to work with others, and cause issues of workplace incivility. Time in nature reduces stress and elevates our mood, which can impact productivity and the ability to work with others. A recent study conducted by Lisa Nisbet for the David Suzuki Foundation 30X30 Nature Challenge found that spending time in nature increases happiness and self reported levels of productivity!

Here are a few suggestions on how to incorporate nature into your health and personal development plan in 2014:

1. Practice mindfulness/meditation in nature: You have to take time to slow your mind and body down and be in the present moment for your brain to begin to let go of stress and “cognitive leftovers” from the days activities. This is at the heart of mindfulness, which is now being utilized in cutting edge leadership development programs, and identified by the Center for Creative Leadership as “one of the five big leadership ideas.” Nature is the perfect setting to practice mindfulness and meditation. Janice Maturano recently published a book on this topic, Finding the Space to Lead.  Try this as a mindfulness exercise in nature:

Sunlight on a mountain stream (North Carolina) Photo by Mark Ellison

Sunlight on a mountain stream (North Carolina)
Photo by Mark Ellison

Find a quiet place in nature and just be. Close your eyes and for 15 minutes enjoy the sounds of nature. Notice what is happening in the environment and you: sounds, sensations, thoughts and feelings. Then, focus on your breathing. Don’t manipulate it, just breath in and out through your nose. Your mind is going to wonder, each time it does, return your attention to your breath. As thoughts and emotions come and go, don’t linger on them, let them go, they will pass away.

2. Green exercise: Exercising in nature essentially multiplies the benefits of exercise, helping the body and mind. Find a greenway or nature trail where you can go for a walk on your lunch break, or after work. Don’t listen to music, enjoy the sounds of the birds, the wind, and notice the beauty of nature. If you have more time, plan a hike for several hours, or bike on a rail trail.  I incorporate time in nature into my overall tracking of health goals. Just as I track the  minutes of cardio exercise, yoga, and the number of steps taken each day, I also record the time I spend in nature.This is easily done in an Excel spreadsheet where I can analyze trends in my health behavior.

3. Nature journal:  Take 15 minutes a day to start a nature journal. All you need is a notebook, a pencil or pen and a nature spot. Keeping a nature journal can help you clear your mind and focus on nature more directly. When you do a journal entry, record the date and time, weather conditions and your impressions of the setting. Identify something in nature that captivates your attention and draw it to scale. An excellent resource for learning more about nature journaling is a book by Clare Leslie and Charles Roth, “Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You.”

4. Practice Shinrin yoku: Shrin yoku is spending time in nature, just enjoying the experience, taking in the beauty and peace it offers. A good resource for this is a book written by wilderness guide Amos Clifford, “A Little Handbook of Shrin yoku.” 

5. Be a Nature Advocate: Advocate for policies that bring nature into your work environment or for access to nature near the workplace. This could be as simple as having plants and pictures of nature in the workplace, and  tables outside for meetings or lunch breaks.

An excellent resource on nature and the brain is Eva Selhub and Alan Logan’s book Your Brain on Nature. It is great read, and references many research studies.

Spending time in nature does not need to be complicated or time consuming and can last as little as fifteen 15 minutes or an entire day. Remember, the amount of time you spend in nature, and the quality of the environment you are in will directly impact how well nature heals your mind and body. Incorporate time in nature into your health routine and  reap the benefits it offers your brain in 2014.

Note: The North American Chapter of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine will host a webinar on January 28, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. EST. Dr. Lisa Nisbet, assistant professor of psychology at Trent University in Ontario will discuss her research on nature relatedness and happiness. Register online at http://www.anymeeting.com/PIID=EA52DE87814E3D.

Kalevi Korpela Discusses Finland’s “Power Forests” for Well-being and Emerging Research

I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Kalevi Korpela at the joint conferences of the Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals and the International Union of Forest Research Organizations in May 2013. It was at this conference that we had the initial meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine. Dr. Korpela, Professor of Psychology at the University of Tampere in Finland, is on the board of (INFOM) based in Tokyo, Japan. Dr. Korpela’s research has made significant contributions to the understanding of how nature impacts human health and well-being. He took time recently to answer several questions about his research and the “Power Forests” for wellbeing in Finland and other European countries.

Dr. Kalevi Korpela, Professor of Psychology, University of Tampere Photo courtesy University of Tampere, Finland

Dr. Kalevi Korpela, Professor of Psychology, University of Tampere
Photo courtesy University of Tampere, Finland

Hiking Research: What inspired you to pursue psychology as a career and to research how nature impacts well-being?

Kalevi Korpela: I remember being interested in psychology already in high school. After matriculation, I was thinking about architecture or psychology for university studies but only went to psychology exams. I did like and still like this Dostoyevski quote: “A human being is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time.” At our department of psychology in Tampere University we had a tradition of environmental psychological studies dating back to early seventies. In my master’s thesis I found myself being interested in environmental psychology and writing a thesis on cognitive maps of the city.

Hiking Research: What research projects are you currently involved with?

Kalevi Korpela: The project “Urban Diversity” 2010-2013 is ending. We have tried to figure out how to combine building and the possibilities of nature in fruitful ways in process planning. The research consortium includes the Tampere University of Technology (School of Architecture), Departments of Regional Studies and Psychology at the Univ. of Tampere.

The project “Recovery from work stress: integrating perspectives of work and environmental psychology”, 2012-2016, investigates the relationship between “green exercise”, indoor plants, window views and recovery from work stress in a 3-year longitudinal survey. We also carry out interventions during the lunch break (relaxation, park walks) to investigate short-term recovery from stress during the workday.

The project “Outdoor recreation 2009”, 2010- , is a survey study of outdoor recreation and well-being using a representative sample of Finns. A recent paper about this data is Korpela, K., Borodulin, K., Neuvonen, M., Paronen, O., & Tyrväinen, L. (2013). Analyzing the mediators between nature-based outdoor recreation and emotional well-being. Journal of Environmental Psychology. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.11.003. (An earlier paper is also available online through the journal Health Promotion International). The research consortium includes the Finnish Forest Research Institute (FFRI/METLA), Statistics Finland, University of Tampere, The National Institute for Health and Welfare, Centre for Health Promotion Research (UKK Institute), and MTT Agrifood Research Finland.

The project “Green infrastructures for health in the future living environments (GreenHealth)”, 2013-2014 has carried out the walking experiments in Helsinki city center, an urban park and urban woodlands. The first results are in press in Journal of Environmental Psychology. The research consortium includes The Finnish Forest Research Institute (FFRI/METLA), The National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), Dept of Psychology (Univ. of Tampere), and the Japanese team who has carried out tens of walking experiments in Japan: Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, (Prof., Dr. Takahide Kagawa, Dr. Yuko Tsunetsugu, and Dr. Norimasa Takayama); Nippon Medical School (Dr. MD Qing Li) and Chiba University (Prof., Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki)

LEADER- project “Forest Project – Network of densely wooded regions in Europe”, 2012-2013 has created awareness-enhancing / engagement-based forest trails to four countries. Forest trail partners are Finland (Finnish Forest Research Institute and University of Tampere), Sweden, Luxembourg and France. The project partners and funders also include LAG (=Leader action group) Växtlust, Sweden; LAG Müllerthal, Luxembourg; LAG Pays de la Déodatie, France; Aktiivinen Pohjois-Satakunta ry, Finland. Funders include EU, several municipalities, and some private funders.

A view from a trail in the "Power Forest" in Finland.  Photo courtesy Finnish Forest Research Institute

A view from a trail in the “Power Forest” in Finland.
Photo courtesy Finnish Forest Research Institute

The first trail (of this kind, ever; according to our knowledge) was opened on May 20, 2010 near Ikaalinen Spa, Finland (view brochure). We developed the trail in the “Health from the Forest” project 2008-2010 in co-operation with the Finnish Forest Research Institute (Parkano Unit) and Ikaalinen Spa. The project was funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Council of Tampere Region.

The idea is that the awareness-enhancing psychological tasks along the trail may allow even less ideal environments to be experienced in stress-alleviating ways and help people to be physically active. The tasks were written by K. Korpela and their ideas draw from several lines of research: a) experimental research results on the onset of psychological, physiological and behavioral changes in restorative natural settings, b) studies on people’s everyday favorite places and their restorative qualities, c) studies on the effects of cognitive sets and role-taking on human perception and environmental attitudes d) studies on psychology of suggestive information.

Thus, the tasks aim to i.a. induce relaxation, improve mood, induce cognitive reflection and attentional restoration, and enhance the search for a favorite place which can be socially shared.

In the LEADER-project, identical tasks were used in all four countries and the wordings were translated from the original Finnish trail signposts. User surveys are presently collected from each country to investigate people’s attitudes in these trails and tasks.


Hiking Research: What needs to happen for the use of “forest therapy” to become more accepted by healthcare providers? Is nature often used by psychotherapists in European countries?

Kalevi Korpela: We need more solid and causal evidence of the effects of forest therapy and nature’s restorative effects, in general. For example, the Finnish Current Care Guidelines are very strict and require good scientific evidence for any procedure to be accepted as care. Current Care Guidelines are independent, evidence-based clinical practice guidelines.

The guidelines are intended as a basis for treatment decisions, and can be used by physicians, healthcare professionals and citizens. The guidelines are developed by the Finnish Medical Society Duodecim in association with various medical specialist societies.
We also need more co-operation, and need to provide more informing and PR work for healthcare providers. I do not know the European situation but know that there are perhaps half a dozen psychologists in Finland who use nature in their practice.

Hiking Research: What are your suggestions for using nature to help people cope with work stress? Have you worked with organizations that are utilizing nature to help employees improve health? If so, describe what they are doing?

Kalevi Korpela: I will be wiser on this after our research project (see above). But indoor plants and window views might be important in workplaces as well as possibilities for being in a greenspace during the lunchbreak. Our forest trail project has shown that spas might include these trails in their activities.

Hiking Research: Do you collaborate with forestry researchers? If so, how? How can we promote more interdisciplinary collaboration focused on how nature impacts health?

Kalevi Korpela: Yes, I have co-operated a lot with the Finnish Forest Research Institute In Finland as well as in Europe (the COST system), we have funding systems for collaboration and for creating networks for interdisciplinary collaboration. Societies like the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine are important.

Prescriptions for Parks Bill Provides Free State Park Access

An obstacle to the use of nature for improved health is often healthcare providers who are unaware of where to send patients who could benefit from time in nature, and who could help the patient once they go to a park or nature area. This  is preventing many people from connecting with the natural environment and experiencing the health benefits it offers. With over 72 million people in the United States considered medically obese and over 40% considered sedentary (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) it is imperative to find innovative ways to promote health and well-being. A missing link to encourage people to utilize nature for improved health is free access to nature areas, specifically public lands.

Photo by Mark Ellison

Photo by Mark Ellison

New Jersey Assemblywoman BettyLou Decroce (R) is taking one of the first steps in this direction. She introduced a bill that would create “Prescriptions for Parks,” allowing healthcare practitioners to write a prescription for a New Jersey State park pass for individuals diagnosed with obesity-related conditions such as diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and heart disease, which maybe treated with exercise. New York, Chicago, Indiana, New Mexico and California have implemented similar park prescription programs.

Describing the need for Prescription for Parks program Decroce states, “Healthcare practitioners cannot emphasize enough the importance of exercise as part of a individual’s treatment program especially for those with metabolic, respiratory and cardiac conditions. This measure provides those suffering from these diseases an incentive to not only exercise, but an opportunity to do so outdoors, surrounded by the beauty of our state’s natural resources. Treadmills and exercise bikes are great for physical fitness, but there’s nothing like a hike, a jog or swim in the forests and lakes or rivers found in nature. Our State parks are an underutilized resource, by incentivizing residents to exercise and visit State parks citizens will be healthier, insurance companies will shoulder less of a burden, healthcare tax dollars will be saved and New Jersey’s beautiful parks will be highlighted and enjoyed.”

Photo by Mark Ellison

Photo by Mark Ellison

The Park Prescription pass would be valid for free entrance and parking to all 50 State park facilities for two 12-week sessions, and could be renewed. Also included in the bill is a requirement for the Division of Parks and Forestry to develop a brochure for suggested workouts within park facilities, utilizing already established activity programs and trails.

This is a model that should be considered nationally for all state and national parks where a park prescription would provide free access.  To maximize the potential of this program, classes need to be offered at parks that help people understand how exercising and spending time in nature impacts mental and physical health.Offering educational programs that include ecotherapy professionals such as horticultural therapists or the emerging field of forest therapy would raise the level of health benefits experienced by visitors to parks. Nature provides many health benefits, but utilizing the expertise of these professional therapists trained in how to tap into the restorative power of nature is essential to help participants fully benefit from their time in nature, and to continue to experience the benefits once they return home.

There are a number of programs  that are encouraging exercise and promoting the use of public lands as a health resource.

-Indianapolis based non-profit Exercise in Medicine has developed toolkits to educate healthcare care professional on effective methods for prescribing exercise.

-The Prescription Trails program in New Mexico that developed a trail rating system simplifying the process of identifying and prescribing trails.

-The Children and Nature Initiative in Brooklyn prepares “nature champions” to train other healthcare practitioners to prescribe outdoor activities for children.

-The Kids in Parks Initiative sponsored in part by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation is designed to connect and promote child health, park health, and community health. One of the programs is designed to make hiking more attractive and has a website for participants to log miles hiked to receive prizes related to outdoor activity.

Green Gyms in England  are structured programs to use gardening, trail maintenance, environmental conservation, and other nature-based activities as exercise. They are promoted as a fun and free alternative to gyms.

The Institute at the Golden Gate offers a top-notch resource guide for developing Park Prescription programs.

The National Recreation and Park Association recently published a review of five Park Prescription programs.

We must develop a framework that supports patients so they can seamlessly transition from a healthcare provider to exercising in nature.This will require educating healthcare providers on the health benefits of time in nature; developing resource guides to help providers make recommendations on where patients can go, and to help patients navigate the options; and having educational programs at parks to introduce people to nature and how it positively impacts their health. To support this healthcare flexible spending accounts should cover expenses related to exercising in nature and state parks such as entry fees and program registration costs. Health insurance should cover the cost of ecotherapy preventive care programs.

This type of program requires collaboration and innovative thinking. Grant funding will be required to get it off the ground. Once implemented, this could transform the health of a community.

Warriors Hike the Appalachian Trail as Ecotherapy for PTSD

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a 2,180 mile “green tunnel” extending from Georgia to Maine offering access to solitude and the healing power of nature for millions of people. In 2013, 1,130 hardy souls thru hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) northbound. Some hiked the trail as a personal challenge, others for the thrill of adventure, and many set out on the quest for personal transformation.  We all fight different battles and nature offers a balm that can heal many psychological and spiritual wounds.

2013 Warrior Hikers Photo courtesy of Warrior Hike

2013 Warrior Hikers
Photo courtesy of Warrior Hike

What better setting to walk off the stress of war than the AT? The November/December issue of Journeys Magazine, the official publication of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has an article on the Warrior Hike “Walk off the War” program, designed for combat veterans transitioning from their military service. The program was inspired by Earl Shaffer, the first person to thru hike the AT in 1948, who told a friend he was going to “walk off the war” to work out the sights, sounds, and losses of World War II. Recognizing the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of long distance hiking, Warrior Hike partnered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association to offer thru hiking experiences for returning combat veterans.

Viewing the beauty of autumn leaves in a forest can be used as a form of ecotherapy, providing healing to the mind, body, and spirit. Photo by Mark Ellison

Viewing the beauty of autumn leaves in a forest can be used as a form of ecotherapy, providing healing to the mind, body, and spirit.
Photo by Mark Ellison

The Warrior Hike program was spearheaded by Sean Gobin, a USMC Captain who thru hiked the AT in 2012 after returning from active duty in Afghanistan.The 13 participants selected to participate in the Warrior Hike program in 2013 received the equipment and supplies needed to complete a thru hike, support in towns along the AT from veterans and hiking organizations, and job placement assistance once they completed the hike. Veterans must apply to be part of the program, and applications are currently being accepted for 2014.wh

Since 2001 over 2.5 million veterans have returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but many of them have never transitioned from their experiences. This is evident by the recent report from the Department of Veteran Affairs which states that over 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD affects over 7 million American adults and  “develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers. PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans, but it can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.” Symptoms of PTSD include having flashbacks, bad dreams, or frightening thoughts; feeling emotionally numb, guilty, depressed or worried; and being easily startled, on edge, or having angry outbursts.

An autumn snow on the Appalachian Trail near Mt. Rogers (Virginia) Photo by Mark Ellison

An autumn snow on the Appalachian Trail near Mt. Rogers (Virginia)
Photo by Mark Ellison

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affects thousands of veterans returning from combat, but also many others who have experienced trauma in different settings. Lets face it, we live in a violent world. The therapeutic use of time in nature to help heal psychological and spiritual wounds can bring renewed hope to individuals, their families, and society as a whole. Time in nature can be powerfully transforming. Many of us know this intuitively, and research is beginning to substantiate this. Assessing the healing that combat veterans experience on the AT through a research project associated with the Warrior Hike program could help to attract additional funding to support it, and encourage healthcare providers to recommend hiking the Appalachian Trail as a treatment alternative for people who have experienced traumatic events. The Warrior Hike program is a wonderful example of how to use nature for healing (ecotherapy) and should be emulated to help as many as possible experience the restorative power that nature offers.

Seven Ways to Make Nature as Easy to Connect to at Work as the Internet

We can access any type of technology in the workplace in an instant. Online we can hit social media sites, check email and post pictures with ease. Why don’t we make it just as easy to incorporate nature into our work spaces? There are many motives for organizations to encourage this including  having healthier, more satisfied employees, as well as improving employee effectiveness on the job.

In the United States obesity is a major health issue that costs organizations millions in associated healthcare costs. Having green space near the workplace encourages exercise. Linked to this, The American Public Health Association (APHA) recently adopted a new policy statement focused on promoting healthy and active lifestyles by  encouraging land use decisions that prioritize access to natural areas and green spaces for residents of all ages, abilities and income levels. APHA calls on public health, medical and other health professionals to raise awareness among patients and the public at-large about the health benefits of spending time in nature and of nature-based play and recreation and encourages healthcare professionals to form partnerships with relevant stakeholders, such as parks departments, school districts and nature centers. The policy statement also calls for promoting natural landscaping. All of this points to the need for have more access to nature in all settings, particularly near the workplace where people spend a large part of their day.

Enjoying the "soft fascination" of beautiful fall leaves. Photo by Mark Ellison

Enjoying the “soft fascination” of beautiful fall leaves.
Photo by Mark Ellison

We need to make nature as easy to connect to at work as the internet.It really should not be that difficult, but we make it that way by designing cities without adequate green spaces, and work spaces that do not take into account the health of employees. Complicating the problem, we don’t adequately communicate how spending time in nature impacts health and well-being, and  people who have lived in urban settings most of their life may have little understanding of the abundant health benefits nature offers.

One way to incorporate nature into our busy lives is to find ways to experience its benefits in or near our workplace. Here are seven tips for experiencing nature at work.

1) Have plants in your work space: Having plants in your work space can help lower blood pressure and perceived levels of stress, improve focus, help clean the air, in addition to providing aesthetically pleasing elements to the space. If you work at a computer most of the day, having plants in the field of vision of your screen is key.

2) Sounds of nature: Noise is a big stress inducing factor in many workplaces. Being able to introduce nature sounds that are more relaxing can help to improve focus and reduce stress. One Square Inch, a sanctuary for silence at Olympic National Park provides a wonderful recording of nature to block out noise.

Residents of Abingdon and Damascus, Virginia use The Virginia Creeper Trail for "green exercise". The trail starts in downtown Abingdon and runs 34 miles through Damascus to Whitetop, Virginia. Photo by Mark Ellison

Residents of Abingdon and Damascus, Virginia use The Virginia Creeper Trail for “green exercise”. The trail starts in downtown Abingdon and runs 34 miles through Damascus to Whitetop, Virginia.
Photo by Mark Ellison

3) Have walking/hiking meetings or meet outside: Having walking or hiking meetings allows the opportunity to discuss important topics and get exercise simultaneously. Exercise also stimulates the brain and can aid in enhancing creativity if the exercise is in a green environment. Most of us sit entirely  too much, and walking meetings can also help us get 10,000 steps a day, the minimum recommended to maintain health. If walking/hiking meetings are not an option, have tables and chairs outside the office for meetings.

4) Pictures/artwork of nature: Ideally work spaces will have windows that offer natural light and views of nature. If this is not the case, use photos or artwork of nature to introduce nature to the setting. It could be pictures of a favorite spot you go to escape, a breathtaking sunset, or beautiful flowers. Nature pictures/paintings have been found to be relaxing. In contrast abstract art, particularly in healthcare settings for patients, has been found to be upsetting.

5)Take a break or lunch outside: If there is a park or greenway nearby this is a great escape to help reduce stress, get some vitamin D and breathe some fresh air. If parks or greenways are not available, bring your own portable chair and find a nice place to relax. If only for fifteen minutes this can help improve your mood and feelings of well-being.

6) Offer “on the clock” nature classes/activities: The National Outdoor Learning School (NOLS) offers employees one day a year “on the clock” to get outside and enjoy nature. This is often done in groups and leads to team building as well as improved health. Organizations can offer classes that introduce employees to the health benefits of time in nature, and then have experiential programs that get them out into it. The rewards are significant for the organization (improved employee health and effectiveness) as well as for the employees.

7) Have planning retreats at a botanical garden: Many botanical gardens also offer meetings spaces. These make ideal settings to get out of the office for planning, while also helping to reduce stress. Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens in Belmont, NC and Winghaven Gardens  in Charlotte are two that I have utilized with wonderful results.

Improving personal health as well as increasing effectiveness are going to be major priorities for organizations going forward. Google is an organization that gets this and offers numerous perks to improve employee health, well-being and satisfaction. Healthcare is moving to a model of “prevention” to reduce spiraling costs. Organizations continue to search for ways to do more with less. Creating healthier, more natural workplace environments will help to achieve both objectives.

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet Discusses 30×30 Nature Challenge Research and Using Nature to Maximize Well-being

Organizations are desperately trying to identify ways to encourage improved employee health and well-being, and nature offers an underutilized and often overlooked opportunity for this. Some of the obstacles that have prevented nature from being embraced include many people not understanding the health benefits associated with nature contact, how these benefits impact work effectiveness, and methods that can be used to encourage  employees to spend time in nature. Connecting to nature has been made more difficult than it needs to be.

A model for how to encourage people to develop a connection with nature is the 30×30 Nature Challenge developed by the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) in Canada. The 30×30 Nature Challenge is an annual program aimed at  increasing Canadians’ contact with the natural environment.To be involved in the challenge, participants voluntarily signed up on the DSF website before May 1st and pledged to spend a minimum of 30 minutes outdoors, in contact with nature, for 30 days during the month of May. A number of workplaces publicized the challenge and the DSF provided toolkits, designed specifically for employers, containing tips that encouraged employees to spend time outdoors and in nature. Individual participants received email updates and were able to visit the DSF 30×30 challenge website throughout the month of May for further suggestions on how to incorporate more nature contact into their daily life.

hr_october

In 2013 participants were involved in a research study conducted by the DSF and Dr. Elizabeth (Lisa) Nisbet, Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Trent University in Ontario.

Over 10,000 people participated in the research study, with 2,285 submitting information that could be utilized for analysis.The results revealed that overall, the 30×30 challenge was successful in encouraging participants to increase their nature contact. Participants also reported increased nature relatedness and well-being at the end of the challenge. “The 30×30 nature challenge was a voluntary commitment and the respondents were self-selected, but the results suggested that increased nature contact had benefits for increasing happiness,” said Nisbet.  Participants almost doubled their weekly nature contact participating in the challenge, and also had better moods and less stress at the end of the challenge.

Effects of the 30×30 Nature Challenge on Work Functioning
A number of workplaces across Canada publicized the challenge to their employees. At the beginning of the survey, respondents were asked if they had learned about the 30×30 challenge at work. Participants who indicated ‘yes’ were directed to three additional questions about job functioning. Participants were asked how satisfied they were with their job in the previous month, how well they were getting along with colleagues, and how productive they felt they were in their work role. Participants reported no changes in either job satisfaction or interactions with co-workers. However, people did feel they were being slightly more productive in their work roles at the end of the challenge.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Elizabeth (Lisa) Nisbet about the 30×30 challenge and how organizations and communities can utilize the results of this study. Dr. Nisbet’s research has focused on individual differences in subjective connectedness with nature (nature relatedness or NR) and the links with health, well-being (happiness), and environmentally sustainable behaviour.

Hiking Research: What is the most important thing to take away from the results of the Nature Challenge?

Elizabeth (Lisa) Nisbet, Ph.D.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Nisbet, Ph.D.

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: The key finding (and maybe most exciting result) from the 30×30 nature challenge is it’s possible to change how we spend our time and, as a result, improve our well-being.  There is room in our busy lives for a few hours of nature contact each week.  The nature challenge participants were able to double their weekly nature time during the month of May, and this increased nature contact was associated with significant increases in happiness.  The way we spend our leisure time influences how we feel – physically and mentally – and this is within our control, to some extent.  In other words, if we know about nature’s effects on our well-being, we can make informed decisions about where to spend our time and choose environments that enhance rather than detract from our health.  By getting outdoors, for a walk, hike, or other activity in nature, we’re improving our psychological health but also strengthening our bond with the natural world.  This is good for us, and good for our environment.

Hiking Research: How can communities and organizations adapt the concept of the 30x 30 Nature Challenge for their own initiatives?

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: Because our modern lifestyles often separate us (physically and psychologically) from nature, many people may not get regular doses of nature contact.  By setting goals to spend time in nature we can ensure we don’t neglect this important connection.  The health benefits of nature contact are relevant for both individuals and organizations.  We benefit, in terms of our personal happiness, from time in nature, but there are also spillover effects.  The nature contact we have in our leisure time appears to carry over into other life domains.  In other words, connecting with nature contributes to our well-being even after we leave the natural environment and go back to our homes and workplaces.  People who have a strong sense of connection with the natural world are generally happier, and this has benefits for health and productivity.  The research on nature and greenspace shows that even having a view of nature from a window reduces our frustration and improves our well-being. Another benefit of connecting with nature is that it fosters greater concern for the natural environment.  People are more motivated to care for something if they feel connected to it. This connection with nature can foster social cohesion and thus strengthen communities as they work together.

Hiking Research: What are your suggestions for helping people disconnect from technology and to connect to nature?

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: It can be a challenge to unplug. Finding ways to incorporate nature contact into our routine is one way to ensure we get enough outdoor time.  Making regular time for nature, just like other health habits, even in small doses, is helpful for improving our well-being. Active commuting (biking, walking, etc.) to work or school is another way to connect with nearby urban nature. If distances make this impossible, then taking a walk during work breaks can restore our focus and boost our mood. In order to disconnect from technology and reconnect with our environment we may need to think about nature differently – not just as leisure, but as an essential part of our day and an important health practice.

Hiking Research: Describe the research projects you are currently involved with.

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: We have a number of nature contact studies going on in my lab. We are studying the effects of experiential environmental education on nature connectedness and environmental concern. We are also using a nature contact intervention (similar to the 30×30 challenge) to investigate how spending time in nature may affect students’ stress levels and psychological health.  Another research project underway is testing how citizen science experiences influence well-being and environmental concern.  Participants in our Wildlife CSI (Compost Scene Identification) study are contributing to actual research looking at how composting influences scavenger behaviour.  I am interested in how this, and other, citizen science ventures affect connectedness with nature as well as happiness. Learning about the plants and animals in our ecosystems may enhance our sense of connection with nature, our happiness, and motivate more environmentally sustainable behaviour.

Final Thoughts: The 30X30 Nature Challenge offers an excellent example of an initiative communities and organizations can utilize to encourage spending time in nature. Organizations can provide incentives for participation such as “wellness credits” that can be applied towards insurance premiums, or offering time “on the clock” for employees to spend time in nature as a group. Communities can use this type of initiative to encourage all residents to get outside, while targeting communities that are distressed and more likely to not have access to green space with special programs.