The Healing Power of Nature

Mary Tweed
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We know that in the West, rates of physical activity are decreasing as more and more people lead sedentary lifestyles. At the same time, there has been an explosion in the rise of preventable diseases, caused by those lifestyles, which is straining the resources of healthcare systems around the world. According to figures published by, Diabetes currently costs the NHS over £1.5 million per hour in the UK or over £25,000 per minute; many of those in the Type 2 category are preventable. Another bane of modern life is stress, depression and anxiety, which according to the Health and Safety Executive caused the loss of 12.5 million working days in 2016/17. These figures alone, are enough to prove that it makes good economic sense to prevent disease and promote good health practise.

Katharine and I recently attended a lecture given by Professor Liisa Tyrvainen, research professor at the Natural Resources Institute in Helsinki, Finland, titled The Healing Power of Forest and Nature. Professor Tyrvainen is active in a new field of studies called Health and Nature Studies, which has existed for about 15 years. It is well known that physical activity, mental well being and social well being are interconnected; Professor Tyrvainen studies the extra benefits to the latter two by being active in nature, with a particular focus on forests, although she admitted that there is a cultural element involved; people in the west of Finland find open fields more relaxing than forests - a finding which I’m sure would be echoed by the residents of arable East Anglia.

Historically, most physical activity studies have taken place in controlled indoor environments. Professor Tyrvainen wanted to research the psychological and physiological effects that took place when people undertook physical activity in various surroundings. She took people to 3 different settings - a city centre, an urban park and a woodland, where they had to sit for 15 minutes followed by a 30 minute walk. Those sitting in the urban area saw stress levels increase, because so much was going on around them and stimulating their senses, that it caused a fight or flight adrenal reaction. By contrast, just sitting in a green area for 15 minutes had positive effects on the subjects’ well being. Once participants had undergone a 30 minute walk, those benefits increased sharply. The group who had spent time in the forest showed a slight improvement over those who had visited a green urban space. In other words, the study showed that people relax in a very short space of time in green areas, but that woodland had the most significant impact. It was found that forests attached to watercourses ranked the highest in terms of perceived restoration, also that feeling safe was vital if the health benefits were to be gained.

Generally speaking, green environments are less noisy and have less air pollution, which helps to induce relaxation and reduce stress levels, due to lowering levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Forest visits have also been found to reduce blood pressure and muscle tension, whilst increasing heart rate variability. No wonder that the concept of “forest bathing”, which originated in Japan in the 1980s, is becoming a popular form of therapy for treating mental health issues. In 2010, Finland pioneered the way with the opening of its first psychological trail, which aims to “induce relaxation, improve mood, induce cognitive reflection and attentional restoration, and enhance the search for a favorite place which can be socially shared.” The concept has since spread throughout Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. A 2012 study in Scotland found that regular use of natural environments was associated with lower risk of poor mental health. Indeed it is recommended that people suffering from mental health disorders visit a natural environment 3 x half an hour a week or 2-3 longer visits per month in order to show an improvement in mood.

It is not just mental health that benefits from the outdoors. The immune function of the body strengthens in relation to the amount of time spent in nature. Those who spend time playing outdoors, whether climbing trees and building dens, or simply Nordic Walking through a park come into contact with an increased range of biodiversity, which in turn leads to a more diverse microbiome in the gut and increased resistance to allergies. It has also been found that NK cell (killer cells) activity and the amount of anti-cancer proteins increased after forest visits compared to visits to urban areas.

Unsurprisingly, there is a direct relation between the proximity to a green area and the amount of time a person spends therein. In the UK we are fortunate to have 15 National Parks and in Suffolk, not only are we only ever a short distance from the countryside, but most of our towns have wonderful country parks, including those in which we teach Nordic Walking: Clare, Nowton and Milton. Some studies show that people living in green neighbourhoods live longer, improve their well being and that those areas have a reduction in income related health inequality. Another advantages of green areas as recreational spaces, is that they are low cost; they do not require a membership fee and unlike indoor gyms, there are no costs associated with electricity or heating.

And finally the social aspect of nature must not be underestimated. Whether you want to immerse yourself in the environment on your own for a little “me time” or spend time with others, the choice is yours. Both have valuable roles to play in our mental well being. So do not feel indulgent by grabbing your poles and setting off for a Nordic Walk in the park, you are restoring your balance, preventing disease, boosting your immunity and brain function, reducing stress levels and increasing your overall health.

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