Give Nature Its Fair Share Of Your Time
To end July, NJ Recovery & Wellness thought it was appropriate to celebrate Parks and Recreation Month by discussing the benefits of being in nature more. Our Local and National Parks in the United States give everyone in almost any county the ability to experience nature. Throughout history, we have seen individuals dating back to Ancient Greece document how being in nature had a profound impact on their wellbeing.
“The physician heals, Nature makes well,” Aristotle said
Every religion, culture, and society in history has prized nature for being one of the foundational principles of the beauty of life. In the United States, President Theodore Roosevelt made over 250 million acres of land protected and to this day is known as one of the greatest conservationists in the history of our country. 1985 is when Parks and Recreation Month was signified as a holiday. But let us remember that our parks not only act as symbols of the natural world, but places of retreat and solitude.
For many communities across the nation, and especially in New Jersey (the garden state), parks act as community centers, gyms, playgrounds, and retreats. Where I live in southern New Jersey, there is no limit to the amount of green space and nature we see even though a lot of it is farmland. But as you go further North, the more city-like it becomes. This limits the space that you can just enter into nature and be inside an ecosystem of its own. But did you know that these places are just places that act as community places or gyms? They offer one of the best detoxifying places that we all can go to daily. Science shows being in nature is one of the most powerful tools to make us feel better.
During the Covid pandemic, many of our lives have changed. On average the typical American can spend up to 10 hours looking at screens a day! Not only that, screens are natural stressors since they are stimulating and produce artificial light that stimulates the brain. One of the most profound studies when it comes to the benefits of natural environments didn’t partake in a natural environment: it was when individuals looked at natural environments on their screens! It showed even then it acts as a relaxing agent, which shows just how powerful nature can be. This reminds me of individuals who exercise outside instead of inside gyms. For many, they dislike the idea of having windows surrounding them, which studies show makes us feel uncomfortable. While individuals who go outside and run or spend time in nature would have a much greater reward from their exercise. Thus, it actually gives them more incentive to continue in that behavior. That is why we all should be celebrating parks and recreation month by enjoying the environments we have the privilege to enjoy.
The difference between nature and cityscapes is LARGE
For many city slickers, we think of walking through the city as an equal experience to walking through a green park or forest, when this is not actually true. We do see a difference between walking in cities and walking through forests or city parks. Multiple studies have shown this over the years to be the case that we see much greater benefit from being outside in natural or green-filled environments than cityscapes. Many people are surprised by this since who doesn’t enjoy a stroll inside a city like Philadelphia or New York through your favorite neighborhoods on a beautiful summer night? The problem is, we see nearly a 20% reduction in cortisol levels and blood oxygen levels being inside a park or forest, which is a significant difference in your stress levels.
Likely what is happening is that inside urban areas we still experience all the stimulation of being inside the city. Unlike when we enter a park or a forest which slows us down and has much softer sounds. Even for our local parks in which we might see a children’s sporting event happening and hear all the whistles and screaming, that stimulus for many will have positive effects compared to hearing sirens and cars buzzing around. One of the other thoughts on this is that when you are in a park or forest the air will either be cleaner or give you the placebo of feeling cleaner than when you are in a city. Inside cities, we are exposed to environmental factors like the heated island effect, which will create excess warming due to the lack of water and green spaces that naturally absorb the sun’s heat. The more obvious factor would be the higher levels of CO2 and Carbon Monoxide from exhaust systems and the surrounding vehicles.
How much time do we need to spend outside?
The question of time is always an important one for any health-related topic. Whether it is work, family, or friends, we all always seem too busy to put our health first. The benefit of nature having so many rewarding effects on our health is that we can exercise and be outside at the same time. We can do almost any activity and be outside. Naturally, to maximize the benefits of being outside you would rather be mindful of what you are doing instead of working or being on your phone, but baby steps at first and hopefully better routines later!
Now, enough rambling about the absolute double-edged sword nature is and back to “How much time do we need outside to get the rewards?” According to a study of over 20,000 participants led by Mattew White at the University of Exeter, it only takes 120 minutes, or two hours, of being in nature to see the massive benefits! Even better news, it didn’t matter if that was all at once, split into two, or split throughout a week. The study showed that individuals who spent just 120 minutes in nature, in whatever capacity they could throughout the week, exhibited benefits in mental and physical wellbeing, compared to individuals who didn’t get that time. We all can figure out a way to get 120 minutes of time inside nature, whether it is walking at the park after work for twenty minutes, taking our children to the park, or sitting on a blanket at the park and spending some time making our phone calls there, instead of in our homes.
Living in the United States offers us the ability to see parks or forests all around us. In South Jersey, we have the natural reserve of the Pine Barrens and local parks in each community. In North Jersey, we have similar proximity to the Appalachian mountains and parks in our communities. The most important factor to remember though is that while walking through cityscapes or town centers you will not get the same physical and mental well-being benefits that you receive walking in natural environments.
No matter what month it is, we all can find the values and benefits of our parks and recreation centers which help enable healthy communities. If there is anything you took away from this post, make sure to try and spend two hours over the next week inside your local parks or forest. With that, you might even see relatively quickly the benefits of your local park or recreation centers that you might not have noticed before. Community centers everywhere host different events that can be participated in, maybe yoga in the park? How about a summer evening walking in nature while having your weekly phone call. Spending time in nature doesn’t just mean we have to stop everything else in life, it means we can bring our lives into nature to get the rewarding benefits along with keeping up with our tasks. All you need is 20 minutes a day or two hours a week to get the best natural de-stressor known to humans and the best part is that we all have access to it and it’s free.