How Nature Can Make You Happier and Healthier

by Diana Rhoades

Last January, after participating in BEYOND Tucson’s 6th annual celebration of life and the outdoors, I picked up a copy of National Geographic’s The Power of Parks: a yearlong exploration of the National Parks. The title was “This is your Brain on Nature.”

The article is comprehensive in describing scientific research establishing the benefits of spending time in nature. It quotes a cognitive psychologist, David Strayer.  “Our brains aren’t tireless three-pound machines; they’re easily fatigued. When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too.”

Nature produces an electrochemical change in the brain leading to effortless attention. Throughout history, humans have sought to free their mind. From early written records of meditation  in ancient Buddhist India and Taoist China, to one of the greatest scientists on earth, E.O. Wilson, and his discoveries of biophilia and biodiversity, to John Muir, the avid naturalist, we have learned of the power of nature. Muir said,  “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off you like falling leaves.”

Technology and multi-tasking  is damaging our ability to concentrate. We are obsessed with our screens. We are too busy to smell the roses. We have spent millions of years living and evolving in nature, and we have become depressed without our ancestral home.

While the benefits of nature are established, more than 85% of our lives are spent indoors. One recent Nature Conservancy poll found that only about 10 percent of American teens spend time outside every day. According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, American adults spend less time outdoors than they do inside vehicles—less than 5 percent of their day.

A new effort linking national parks and public lands to medical professionals highlights federal efforts to promote spending time in nature. National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis is promoting “Take a hike and call me in the morning.”  US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy launched “Step It Up”, and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Outside” are all gathering speed. Visit ParkRx to get more information about how your doctor can start prescribing nature. Author Richard Louv calls it Vitamin “N,” and his latest book describes how nature brings our senses alive, and how it reduces stress and anxiety. What’s interesting is that you can get the benefits of nature from just looking at it from the comfort of your bed. Studies show viewing nature from your hospital bed helps you recover more quickly.

This summer, a new survey by Wallethub came out showing that Tucson was the most stressed out city in Arizona. Wait, how can the home of the giant Saguaro, a city surrounded by a national park to the east and west, and forested mountains to the north and south – a literal city within a park – be overstressed?  Tucson was ranked No. 41 of cities nationally, but much higher than Phoenix at 71, Tempe at 110, Scottsdale at 125 and Gilbert at 129! This should be a call to action for all of us. We should not be more stressed than our neighbors to the north. As you prepare for BEYOND’s 6th annual celebration on January 14, 2017,  try some of these activities to reduce your stress and let happiness return.

Take a hike!

Walking in nature decreases anxiety and depression. It also prevents and treats heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and helps you maintain a healthy weight. I live downtown so my close and favorite places are Tumamoc Hill, Sentinel Peak Park, Tucson Mountain Park and the Wasson Peak trail at Saguaro National Park. You also may want to consider joining the Southern Arizona Hiking Club

Plant a tree outside a window at home

The healthful benefits of nature are also achieved  by viewing nature out of your window. You also free your mind when gardening and planting, so pick up your tree from Trees for Tucson and get started improving your mind today.

Go on a picnic

Want something close? The view from “A” mountain is spectacular, and the new trails and shade structures at Sentinel Peak Park are perfect for grabbing a burrito and a lunch on the go. Drive to the top parking lot, get out of your car, and head to the gazebos and picnic tables. Madera Canyon south of Tucson is amazing for picnics and birding, and the Reid Park Zoo and  Brandi Fenton Memorial Park are wonderful for kids and adults.

Go camping

I have been camping once a month for 18 months. I just put it on my calendar and get out there, and it makes me happy! It gets better and better as you figure out how to be comfortable and pack the right gear. But it doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. From local campgrounds, like Gilbert Ray and Colossal Cave, to backpacking at Saguaro National Park to camping at Mt. Lemmon, we are surrounded by great options. FIrst time? Attend at class at Tucson’s REI Co-Op.

Reading materials and resources:

This Is Your Brain on Nature, by Florence Williams, National Geographic

How Walking in Nature Changes The Brain, by Gretchen Reynolds

The Real Meaning of Meditation by Swami Rama, Yoga International

The Effects of Nature on Physical and Mental Health, by Valerie Latona

Why Meditating in Nature is Easier by Mark Coleman

Diana Rhoades is the National Park Service Urban Fellow for Tucson and Saguaro National Park.

December 15, 2016

Posted in: Explore