Do you ever feel the urge to get out in nature? A desire to drop everything and head to the coast for a beach walk, for example; or even just to get out to your local park and surround yourself with greenery?
There’s a word for that: biophilia, the theory that all humans have an innate urge to connect with the natural world. The idea is that outdoor settings feel intuitively good, and can have profound healing effects on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Mood-boosting benefits of being outdoors
These healing effects are backed up by scientific research. Studies have shown that being in nature can increase the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood.
What’s more, spending time in natural environments, whether it’s a serene forest, a tranquil beach, or a peaceful park, has been shown to lower levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.
Bringing the outdoors in
Even if you can’t get outside, there’s research that suggests even looking at the natural world can have health-boosting benefits. According to one study, patients recovering from surgery with a window view of nature have faster recovery rates than those with a blocked view of the outdoors.
Even in hospital rooms containing plants, patients recorded lower blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety levels.
Nature’s healing patterns
A possible explanation for this is that man-made objects tend to be created in straight edges and right angles. By contrast, in the natural world you’ll see repeating patterns called fractals, which the human brain seems to find soothing. There are studies that suggest looking at fractals can reduce stress by up to 60%.
Tech companies, as always, are ahead of the game – most devices’ default backdrop resembles some type of natural outdoor setting. That’s because these images, containing fractals, have an impact on our capacity to feel calmer.
Getting active outdoors
So far we’ve considered the impact of simply being in, or looking at, the natural world. But a more active approach to the outdoors is also worthwhile.
Engaging with nature brings numerous physical health benefits. Outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling, or gardening provide opportunities for exercise, helping to improve cardiovascular health, strengthen muscles, and enhance overall fitness levels. In colder temperatures, just make sure you’re wearing the right outdoor workout clothing for winter weather. In summer, make sure you follow advice for exercising in the heat.
The importance of vitamin D
Of course, we can’t talk about the benefits of the outdoors without mentioning vitamin D. Research over the last few years has associated it with everything from boosting the immune system to improving bone health. Nowadays it’s one of the most popular vitamin supplements in the UK. However, there is another source: exposure to natural sunlight allows our bodies to produce vitamin D.
Nature for sleep and peace
There’s evidence to suggest vitamin D can help with sleep regulation. But simply spending time in nature in general has also been linked to improved sleep patterns.
Sunlight helps to calibrate our sleep/wake cycle, known as our circadian rhythm. Research shows that absorbing natural light first thing in the morning is the most effective way to keep our energy levels well distributed throughout the day, avoiding those mid-afternoon crashes and sleepless nights.
What’s more, in our technology-driven world, our minds are often overstimulated, and our senses are overloaded with fast-moving images, sounds and information. Nature offers a much-needed respite, allowing our minds to unwind and slow down.
Studies suggest that spending time in natural environments enhances cognitive function, improves focus and boosts creativity. Whether it’s a leisurely walk in the woods or a hike up a mountain, natural surroundings provide space for mental clarity, enabling us to think more clearly and find innovative solutions to problems away from the everyday business of life.
Nature and mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of noting what’s happening in the present, without judgment. And the natural world is the perfect environment for this.
Whether observing a delicate flower, listening to the gentle breeze or feeling the earth beneath our feet, nature encourages us to slow down, embrace stillness, and forge a deeper connection with ourselves and our environment.
With all of these benefits, it’s easy to see why outdoor wellness is increasingly popular, from forest bathing and walking meditation and outdoor spa gardens. Breathing in the fresh air, and allowing nature’s wonders to heal and rejuvenate us, is a way of returning to the harmonious balance between ourselves and the world around us.
Thinking of enjoying some of the healing benefits of nature by ticking off your to-do list outdoors? First, read our essential guide to working outside on a laptop.