Have you ever felt stifled by the four walls of your office?
As entrepreneurs, it’s common to end up virtually chained to our desks. In theory, we know we shouldn’t, but we need to look over one more report or fire out one last email. Those tasks then roll into the next thing, especially if someone has called with a crisis.
Some people are bonafide workaholics and prefer to be in this “always busy” state anyway. But, in short, when we spend much of our time indoors bent over our work, we’re missing out on the potential health benefits of heading outside.
It’s important for all of us to regularly unshackle ourselves from our desks and get closer to nature – perhaps even as a daily habit. Here’s why:
We don’t get out like we used to…
It’s fair to say that being outdoors was an ubiquitous part of life. For millennia, humans conducted much of their activity outdoors, from farming, to hunting, to going about the daily routine of life. We were connected with the natural environment and it was a vital part of ourselves.
Yet in the last century or so, we’ve moved increasingly away from the outdoors. Comparisons of the time spent outside by older generations versus today’s younger people show a stark difference. A recent U.S. study found that over half of American adults report spending fewer than five hours per week outside in nature. Parents of children 8 to 12 years old said that their children spend three times as many hours with computers and televisions each week as they do playing outside.
“In addition to the lure of technology, the study said that people are spending less time in nature because places where they work, live, and go to school generally do not encourage contact with the natural world and because myriad competing priorities and activities push experiences in nature to the side.”
On the flip side, while people aren’t getting much time with nature, three-quarters of American adults state they highly value contact with nature, and they support programs that enable that connection.
There’s a real concern that we’re missing vital benefits from nature. Imagine not knowing the smell of fresh earth after rain, the sound of a cool breeze through the trees, or the feel of the earth beneath your feet. Our increasing disconnect with the outdoors suggests that we’re not far off from generations who have no experience of these things.
In the 1800s, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was absolutely convinced that all people needed access to beautiful green spaces. He was behind the design of Central Park and urging California legislators to protect Yosemite Valley from development.
“The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.” – Frederick Law Olmsted
Today, scientific study is revealing what Olmsted and others knew intuitively – we need to get out amongst nature.
By missing out on time with nature, we’re missing out on real health and wellness benefits Click To Tweet
Nature and your physical well-being
By now we all know that a common side-effect of today’s busy lifestyles is that people aren’t getting enough exercise. Physicians are seeing “lifestyle” diseases on the increase and physical therapists are treating younger and younger people, with ailments such as “tech neck.”
Scientific studies give us plenty of reasons to consider setting up near a green space, or at least getting ourselves out to one on a regular basis. Living or working close to an area of vegetation has been shown to improve the chances that people get out and move. Natural spaces entice people to get outside and enjoy the benefits of fresh air and movement.
You don’t even have to be near a forest – a neighborhood park or green space near your building can also work. Researchers have found that urban green spaces can still provide you with therapeutic benefits you’d otherwise expect from a walk in the woods.
Nature as medicine
Have you ever heard of a “prescription” for nature? Japanese doctors have been prescribing time spent out in the forest for decades now, especially for a stressed workforce. The practice of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) encourages people to spend time among the trees – not hiking or anxiously counting their fitbit steps, but just being present.
This begs the question, is there anything to the idea of “nature as medicine?” Scientists have found in recent years that the shinrin-yoku prescription does have multiple benefits – perhaps it should become a staple for doctors across the world.
First of all, time out in nature has been shown to reduce the stress response in people and improve their immune response. Heightened levels of cortisol from stress are known markers for a host of other health problems, so it’s very important to be able to keep that response in check. In research conducted by Qing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, subjects showed increases in NK cell activity in the immune system a week after forest bathing, with the positive effects lasting for a month.
A QZ article on forest bathing unpacks this immune response:
“This is due to various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better—inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function.”
Second, multiple studies have shown that spending time in nature can reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is associated with a range of harmful effects, especially if it goes into overdrive. Conditions such as autoimmune diseases, depression, and cancer have all been linked with heightened inflammation in the body.
Third, getting out in nature has been shown to have positive impacts on mental health. Nature can ease anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions; the effects are heightened when combined with some exercise. One study found that being out in nature alters the physical expression of stress in the body. Students who spent two nights out in the forest had lower cortisol levels than those who spent the same amount of time in a city.
As a last plug for the benefits of forest bathing, a research team from the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences in Japan’s Chiba University measured its physiological effects on 280 subjects in their early 20s. What they concluded was a plethora of positive effects for subjects:
“Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.”
Nature can recharge your batteries
If you find yourself in a bit of a fog, where you’re trying to get work done but your brain just doesn’t seem to be operating at 100%, then heading outside can be a great recharger.
A number of studies have shown that nature walks have memory boosting impacts that walks in other settings just don’t. A University of Michigan study found that those who did a memory test and then went on a nature walk improved their results by 20% over those who walked down a city street.
Other studies have found that heading outdoors can also help to improve your creativity. Activity in the parts of our brain associated with rumination and critical thinking diminishes, and the deeper and more imaginative parts of our brain have the chance to kick into gear. In fact, there is more and more evidence to show that you could be doing yourself and your business a favor if you make the time to get with nature! Sometimes your brain just needs a break…
Psychologist Dr. David Strayer puts the recharging effects of time in nature like this:
“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.”
Sometimes it can feel like you just can’t get away from your desk – you need to get tasks done and they won’t happen on their own. However, if time spent at your desk is keeping you away from heading outdoors, it can be well worth making the adjustment to your schedule to include nature time.
We are wired for nature and our increasing time away from it may be harmful to our overall health and wellbeing. A stroll among the trees can help to lower your stress levels, blood pressure, and anxiety response. It can help you to think creatively and improve your memory.
Heading outdoors during your work day may not only improve your overall health, but your performance at work too. Does this all sound worthwhile to you?