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.

What Green Can Do for Public Health

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Public health issues that we currently grapple with such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other diseases require billions of dollars for treatment. Some of these issues are a result of an environment degraded by humans causing polluted air, exposure to heavy metals, and climate change.

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Olympic National Park, Washington (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Recent research has also found that contact with the natural environment in a broader sense can also enhance health. Some of the health problems that we are experiencing may have roots in our disconnection from nature, a setting from which humans have evolved over the past five million years. Nature has been replaced with modern environments offering exposure to an array of artificial stimulation with little health benefit.

A growing body of research is revealing the benefits of time in nature that can have significant public health implications. A study by Yoshinori Oshtsuka from the College of Education at Hokkaido University in Japan found that time in nature is beneficial for reducing blood glucose levels for those with type II diabetes. Time spent walking in a forest resulted in a much larger reduction of glucose levels in comparison to similar amounts of time spent walking outdoors in an urban setting, using a treadmill or underwater exercise. In the study glucose levels were reduced 39% (71 mg/dl ) from time spent in nature, by far the largest impact of any of the exercise regimes. The author hypothesizes that the phytoncides (chemicals) emitted by trees are presumed to be the factor impacting the greater reduction in glucose levels.

Studies have also linked time in nature with increases in natural killer cells (NK) that help to strengthen immunity and aid in fighting off the development of tumors such as cancer. The phytoncides found in a forest setting help to increase NK cell activity. Research has found that a three day/ two night forest trip can increase NK cell activity for up to a month.

In many urban areas the health disparity between rich and poor residents is often stark. Research by Rich Mitchell, Ph.D., Professor of Health and Environment at the Institute for Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow has identified a link between the presence of green space and population health. Mitchell found that urban communities with the most amount of green space had the least disparity in health between rich and poor. Communities with little nature had greater disparities in health, with poorer residents having a cardiovascular disease mortality rate more than twice that of the wealthiest.

Communities that value natural settings and make them available to all socioeconomic groups will reap the benefits of a healthier population. It should be a public health right to have access to high quality nearby nature regardless of socioeconomic status. An investment in preserving natural areas can pay huge dividends with a healthier population, which can also help build a more vibrant economy. Achieving this goal will require collaboration between public health, environmental health, parks & recreation, education, healthcare professionals and others. Working together a “green” public health movement can gain traction.

Utilizing the Restorative Benefits of Nature for Self Reflection

Socrates exhorted us on the virtues of self reflection declaring “that the unexamined life is not worth living.” Unfortunately, the continuing cascade of noise, distractions and information experienced on a daily basis has eliminated many of the opportunities for self examination and reflection.  

Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana (Rosaceae)) near Tennent Mountain on the Mountains to Sea Trail (North Carolina) Photo by Mark Ellison

Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana (Rosaceae)) near Tennent Mountain on the Mountains to Sea Trail, North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Engaging in self reflection can have numerous beneficial outcomes for personal andleadership development, and nature offers an ideal setting to experience reflection free of the distractions of the modern world. Nature provides an environment that allows attention capacities to rest, offers privacy, helps to reduce stress, and includes soft fascination (things that are of capture attention such as birds, waterfalls, sunsets) that leave room for reflective thought. Privacy is the temporary withdrawal from general society through physical or psychological means (Westin, 1967). The privacy available in nature provides a unique setting to utilize self reflection. It is through this withdrawal from everyday settings that one is better able to reflect and make evaluations about work and life situations.

Self reflection has been described as involving “active, persistent, and careful consideration” (Dewey, 1933, p.9). Boud et al (1985) describes it as “those activities individuals engage in to explore experiences” (p.19). Mezirow described reflection “as the process of critically assessing” (1991, p.104).  Reflection translates experience into learning (Seibert & Daudelin, 1999). The functions of reflective thought seem to be closely associated with the releasing of psychological stress and integrating one’s thoughts and experiences (Hammitt & Brown, 1984). With the many distractions experienced in modern life, limited time is available for reflection, self awareness and integration (Hammitt & Brown, 1984).

Being in a restorative natural environment that is away from normal everyday settings provides an opportunity to look at life in a different context, and possibly make connections between concepts that could not be made before. “A deeply restorative experience is likely to include reflections on one’s life, on one’s priorities, and possibilities, on one’s actions and one’s goals” (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989, p. 197).

The restorative benefits of nature make it an ideal environment for utilizing self reflection for personal and leadership development and should be utilized more fully in higher education settings, and by human resource development professionals. 

As an introduction to experiencing the benefits of self reflection while in nature, spend at least 30 minutes in a natural setting that is free of distractions. Utilize all of your senses to experience the various aspects of the environment around you. After at least 30 minutes, reflect on what that experience was like. What did you notice? How did it contrast with the settings you are typically in each day? Make it a priority to set aside time in your schedule on a regularly basis to be in nature. Begin to utilize this time to focus on an area of your life and begin to reflect. Bring along a journal to jot down your thoughts.

Boud, D., Keogh, R. & Walker, D. (1985). Promoting reflection in learning: A model. In D. Boud, R. Cohen, & D. Walker (Eds.), Using experience for learning (pp. 73-86). Bristol, PA: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath.

Hammitt, W., & Brown, G. (1984). Functions of privacy in wilderness environments. Leisure Sciences, 6(2), 151-166.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Keogh, & D. Walker, Reflection: Turning experience into learning (pp. 18-40). London: Kogan Page.

Mezirow, J. ( 1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Seibert, K. & Daudelin, M. (1999). The role of reflection in managerial learning: Theory, research and practice. Westport, CT: Quorum

Westin, A. (1967). Privacy and freedom. New York: Antheneum.

New Course on Nature, Environment & Human Health

I’m teaching a new course this fall on “Nature, Environment, and Human Health at Cabarrus College of Health Sciences. The course is based off of my dissertation that I completed last year at North Carolina State University.  Additional information is available at http://www.cabarruscollege.edu/content/news/2011/061311-NatureCourse.pdf

This is also a recent article on the class: http://www2.independenttribune.com/lifestyles/2011/jun/22/new-course-highlights-links-between-being-outdoors-ar-1143750/

Soft Fascination Allows The Mind To Wander in a Noisy, Urban World

Many people now experience physical and psychological health issues related to the stress, fatigue and pollution associated with living and working in urban environments. In a previous post I explored the concept of escaping these environments to spend time in more restorative natural environments. A key component of natural environments that encourages restoration is the presence of fascinating stimuli (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Something that is fascinating is a stimulus that initiates the use of involuntary attention, or attention that requires no effort.  The presence of fascinating components of the environment are important because they attract us, and keep us from becoming bored, while allowing functioning without the use of directed, or voluntary attention. Fascinating components of a natural environment include bird songs; the sound of wind blowing through the trees; clouds; a sunrise or sunset; or a flowing stream or river. 

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

These elements are not random, but are all connected to the natural environment, thus supporting one another, and capturing attention. Fascination experienced in nature is referred to as soft fascination (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). This is in contrast to hard fascination (e.g. sporting events, watching TV, etc) that demand full attention, not allowing for other thinking, including reflection. Environments that encourage soft fascination have

involuntary attention aspects that are of a mild strength while also having an aesthetic component. “Soft fascination may be a mixture of fascination and pleasure such that any lack of clarity an individual may be experiencing is not necessarily blotted out by distraction, but rendered substantially less painful” (Kaplan & Kaplan, p. 192). This allows the individuals to experience fascinating environment while also allowing for the exploration of other thoughts, as well as reflection. This allows the mind to wander, and presents opportunities to make mental connections to what previously had been disconnected ideas or material. Experiencing environments that

Fire pink (Silene virginica) wildflower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Fire pink (Silene virginica) wildflower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

encourage soft fascination while hiking provides opportunities to think through situations and make decisions; to reflect on prior experiences and make sense of them; and to develop ideas that can be implemented in the workplace or in personal life. Making time to let your mind wander is time well invested.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Escape!

Acadia National Park, Maine (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Have you found yourself seeking to escape the stress, noise and pollution of your everyday environment, if only for a few minutes? Places that are available to escape to are becoming harder to find as the world’s population continues to increase; combined with the fact that more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in an urban environment.

Kaplan & Kaplan (1989) described escape as “an absence of some aspect of life that is ordinarily present, and presumably not always preferred” (p. 183). They describe three types of escape: 1) Escaping distraction; 2) escaping work; 3) escaping mental effort.

Escaping distraction can be seeking relief from information overload. Modern urban living often provides constant demands on attention from cell phones, email, traffic, everyone needing something, now! These constant demands on attention, fatigue directed attention capacities. One of the best ways to heal the ability to focus attention is to spend time in nature, which has few demands to focus on.

Escaping work can involve getting away to a place that is removed from all reminders of the job. Spending time hiking in a wilderness environment, far from the pressures of the job, may offer time to gain a fresh perspective on issues in the workplace. Often this provides opportunities to reflect on past work and life experiences.

Another type of escape that Kaplan et al. describe is from mental effort. The opportunity to rest the mind and truly relax is a primary intention many of us have when planning vacations.

Kaplan et al. point out that what one escapes to may be more important than what one is escaping from. With increased urbanization, another form of escape may be evolving: escape from pollution. Pollution can be in the form noise, smog, or more direct environmental pollution to the land. With more than 79% of the U.S. population now living in urban environments, exposure to these types of pollution are proliferating. Combined with this, many people have now become disconnected to nature because they are relying more on technology and live in urban settings that have few places to enjoy nature. As a result, fewer people now understand the healing benefits that time in nature offers. Escaping to the living room to watch TV non-stop, or playing video games, does not offer the same restorative benefit.

Venturing out to spend time in nature may take more effort than lounging at home in front of the TV, or exercising using the Wi, but the psychological restoration, and fitness benefits offered by nature are worth the investment.

The symptoms of a society that is experiencing information overload and failing to take time for restoration are everywhere: the number of auto accidents that are a result of people texting, or talking on a cell phone; obesity that is a result, in part, of having too many demands on time, and too few opportunities to exercise; and the inability to concentrate because there are so many things to focus on.

There is a prescription for this that has no known side effects: spending time in nature. The use of nature for human resource development in organizations offers a new and creative approach to helping employees cope with the stress of work.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Attention Restoration Offers Many Health Benefits

The attention restoration benefits of spending time in nature have been documented in a number of studies (Berto, 2005; Berman et al., 2008; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). William James (1892) described two types of attention: voluntary and involuntary. Attention that demands effort, or is forced because it lacks interest is called voluntary or directed. Voluntary attention is what is used when we are at work and constantly have interruptions, phone calls, and noise demanding attention. Involuntary attention is passive, reflexive and requires no effort or will when in an attentive state (Kaplan, 1978). Spending time in nature allows involuntary attention to be used. Utilizing involuntary attention rests voluntary (directed ) attention, helping  it to heal from the fatigue caused by constant demands on attention experienced in urban and work environments.

An article published in 2010 by Kaplan & Berman looks at how directed attention is a common resource for executive functioning and self regulation. The authors recognize the need for additional research on the health benefits of attention restoration.  Read the article at http://cartalk.com/ddc/wp-content/uploads/Perspectives-on-Psychological-Science-2010-Kaplan-43-57.pdf

This article is another indication that there are possible benefits from spending time in nature that impact many aspects of functioning and performance. Indeed, additional research is needed to learn more about how nature benefits human health.

Berman, M, Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008) The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.

Berto, R. (2005). Exposure to restorative environments helps restore attention capacity. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 249-259.

James, W. (1892). Psychology: The briefer course. New York: Holt.

Kaplan, S. (1978). Attention and fascination: The search for cognitive clarity. Humanscape: environments for people.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.