Many of us make the time for things like exercise and healthy eating because we’re aware of the health benefits. But with more and more Australians living in urban settings, plenty of research now shows we are neglecting another very healthy activity – engaging with nature.
Nature engagement might be as simple as visiting your local park, doing some gardening or walking your dog. But such simple activities can have profound results. So in our increasingly urbanised world, how exactly can we benefit from spending more time in nature?
Why is nature good for us?
Dr Justin Lawson of the Health, Nature and Sustainability Research Group at Deakin University explains there is strong evidence to suggest that “people have significant positive emotional experiences when immersed in nature; feeling calm, elated, rested, rejuvenated and even experiencing spiritual fulfilment.”
A small study of 112 young adults led by Terry Hartig of Uppsala University demonstrated that as well as decreasing feelings of anger and aggressiveness, walking in a natural environment could led to a reduction in blood pressure.
Dr Tristan Snell, lecturer in the Master of Counselling course at Monash University, says there are many studies demonstrating how our “levels of stress and capacity to focus attention” are impacted by engaging with natural environments.
The ever-increasing levels of noise and pollution in Australian cities and suburbs mean there is also an ever-increasing need for green spaces that allow people to escape the constant stresses of living in such busy places.
In a 2011 study from Germany’s University of Heidelberg, researchers found that people who have grown up in urban environments are more likely to experience social stress. Additionally, mood and anxiety disorders are more commonly suffered by those living in cities, as shown in a 2010 study from the Arkin Mental Health Institute Amsterdam.
This may not surprise many of us residing in urban areas – sometimes the noise, the people, and the fumes can all be a bit much – but evidence now presents a strong case for making our cities more liveable in a very green way, for us and our children.
A small experimental study from Norway’s Telemark University College, published in Landscape and Urban Planning, found that after playing in and exploring natural play areas, children between five and seven years of age showed improvements in their motor abilities.
Dr Tristan Snell says there are also various clinical studies showing that nature can be beneficial for children with attention deficit disorders.
“If you take these kids into natural environments or go for a walk in a natural setting, they tend to show better ability to focus their attention afterwards,” he says.
Making our cities green
According to Professor Sarah Bekessy of RMIT’s School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, designing more green spaces in our cities should be considered “a low-cost public health initiative.”
Some of the most significant ways that more green space can impact human health are through temperature regulation that makes cities cooler in times of extreme heat, and helping in the management of stormwater run-off.
Professor Bekessy believes the creation of more urban green spaces presents an opportunity to also enhance the native biodiversity of our homes, ensuring that our cities remain uniquely Australian.
“The opportunity to have biodiversity in our cities is not only good for human health, but can also be a real way of reenchanting people with nature that is local to that place,” she says.
A 2010 study lead by Dr Felicia Keesing of New York’s Bard College determined that biodiversity loss can increase the rate of disease transmission amongst host species, but further research is needed to determine the causal relationships and longer impact on humans and other animals. Protecting biodiversity may therefore be an effective strategy to combat the spread of disease and keep us healthy.
Dr Justin Lawson also describes the benefits of urban green spaces, explaining that they can promote physical activity and add aesthetic value. “People are generally attracted to beauty,” he says. “Green space can offer a range of beautiful environments that again provide positive mental health outcomes.”
How to bring nature into your life
So what are some easy ways to bring nature into our lives? Here are some tips and tricks from the experts on how to engage with nature:
- Plant a garden at home, or get involved in a local community group that protects and maintains a natural habitat in your local area. This will increase your physical activity and time spent outside, while also bettering the green spaces in your town or suburb.
- Bring plants into your office and home. These will enhance the aesthetic appeal of where you work and live and improve air quality. Even apartments don’t have to be nature-free, Professor Bekessy says. Indoor plants, balcony gardens, and green courtyards can make a huge difference.
- Exercise outside. Instead of spending time in an indoor gym, Dr Snell advises doing workouts outdoors. You need to exercise anyway, so why not maximise the health benefits by doing so in nature?
- Have a pet if possible. Dr Lawson says the relationships we form with animals can lead to increased physical activity, such as dog-walking, and positive feelings of connections with another being.
- Display images of nature at home and at work. These might be photos or artworks of places you’ve been to or places you’d like to visit in the future – like a bucket list of green places that will motivate you every day.