Americans spend roughly 93% of their time indoors.
I think we can all agree that’s too much. What about the outdoors?
When humans spend time in green spaces, whether it be in the woods, on the coast or the top of a mountain, a number of beneficial psychological phenomena occur that reduce stress levels and center the mind. Many studies have proven the connection between human health and spending time in green spaces. A 2010 study even found that stressful life events had less of an impact on residents’ mental and physical health who lived closer to green spaces, while numerous researchers have found a connection between patient healing in a rehabilitation center and a window with a wide view of greenery.
Many elements of nature have been found to benefit health. Urban trees remove air pollution and thus improve local air quality. This benefit is incredibly important because the World Health Organization reports that 9 out of 10 people breathe air with a high level of pollutants. Especially in lower-income areas where tree coverage is less prevalent, people experience an unequal level of exposure to dangerous air pollutants.
Tree coverage also battles the “heat island effect,” the phenomenon that cities are typically hotter than other areas due to concrete and buildings trapping heat. In addition to providing shade, the evaporation of water from leaves helps cool the environment.
A study conducted in Japan found that after three days in the forest, higher levels of Natural Killer cells were detected in blood and urine samples (a sign of improved health, despite the violent sounding name of the cells). This effect is likely due to a lower level of stress hormones being released during that time, as well as the phytoncides from trees and plants. This study shows the possibility that spending time in nature can boost immune response.
Phytoncides are organic compounds emitted from plants that help protect them from insects. If you think of the smell of the forest, it is likely made by phytoncides. Spending time in forest environments as compared to urban areas can lower cortisol levels, pulse rate and blood pressure, which all have an impact on long-term health.
A recent NPR report found that the hottest areas of 97 monitored cities are also poorer communities of color. Cities are facing a call to action for more green spaces, especially in lower-income areas that have been disproportionately affected by heat and pollution. A 2019 study used GIS mapping and modeling combined with census data to discover discrepancies in green space accessibility. Ultimately, their analysis of 10 cities showed the strongest correlation between green spaces and income and higher education. Latinos and African-Americans had less accessibility to green space, with the exception of St. Louis and Jacksonville, where less-educated and Latino residents were closer to green areas.
It’s important to recognize the variety of green spaces available to urban dwellers and how they impact the population. For example, defined trails encourage exercise in nature, while parks with benches and minimal shade coverage shorten the amount of time visitors spend there. Due to the innumerable benefits of spending time in nature, it is critical that every person has equal access to those benefits.
Jor-El Caballo, co-founder of Viva Wellness, a mental health and wellness practice in New York City, believes that spending time in green spaces encourages mindfulness and develops our ability to handle stress upon return to daily life.
“All the sounds, smells and just people being around is a lot for our system to process and take in,” he said. “Being able to have green space, get fresher air and less ambient noise helps give our brains a break. The break-in stimulation enables us to destress and feel better equipped to deal with the stresses and anxieties of life when we re-enter less luscious spaces.”
As a resident of New York City, Jor-El sees issues of accessibility to green spaces.
“I think that it’s up to cities and governments to be intentional about creating more green space wherever possible,” he said. “We certainly need more of that no matter what location we’re in. Our nervous system needs that break and change in environment so often. Additionally, it’s important to consider who thinks they have a right to those spaces and how we manage citizens policing those spaces inappropriately which has decreased access and safety for Black and brown people.”
In the changing world of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jor-El views green spaces as an even more crucial part of mental health practice.
“Absolutely, I think that (and I’ve noticed this in myself as well) green spaces have become even more important to us as we’ve been isolated and kept from other environments in which we might decompress. Being out in the open air (while still socially distant) is a pretty safe way to be outside and I think that many people will be more conscious of taking advantage of that in the months to come.”
Especially in these trying times, spending time outside and taking proper precautions by wearing a mask and distancing can help us feel a greater sense of connection to the world and ourselves, all while improving our physical and mental health. If you’re able, locate a new walking trail or state park near your home and build a practice around slowing down to enjoy the natural world.
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