By William H. Frist, MD

June 15, 2017 

Have you ever wondered how experiencing nature can improve your health and your life?

Increasingly, healthcare and public health professionals are recognizing that the social determinants of health—including where we’re born, live, work, play and age—collectively have a far greater impact on our health outcomes than the healthcare delivery system. It’s estimated that healthcare services account for just 10% of longevity, while social and environmental factors account for twice that at 20%, genetics 30%, and individual behaviors an estimated 40% (Schroeder, NEJM, 2007). Our surroundings and how they influence our choices form the foundation for a healthy lifestyle.

What roles do nature and exposure to natural surroundings play in improving our health? We know that spending time in nature makes us feel good, but does it measurably affect our well-being?

Study after study has shown the answer is yes.

A 2006 American Scientist study on perceptual pleasure and the brain chronicles how viewing stimulating, dynamic natural scenes triggers an increase in interactions of the mu (opioid) receptors in the brain’s visual cortex—making viewing nature a physically pleasurable experience compared to looking at a blank wall or concrete-covered street (Biederman and Vessel 2006).Conversely, being in a high-stress environment such as on a highly-trafficked street will cause the brain to signal production of cortisol by the adrenal glands. Elevated cortisol interferes with learning and memory, weakens immune function and bone density, and increases weight gain, blood pressure and heart disease (Franke, Children2014). It also impacts mental health and resiliency by disrupting brain development in children, triggering emotional problems, depressive disorders, and negatively affecting attention and inhibitory control (Shern et al., Mental Health America, 2014). Toxic stress has been called public health enemy number one, and time in nature can be an effective counterbalance.

Variations of this play out every day. A study done by Robertson Cooper, a business psychology firm, found that in the workplace employees demonstrate a 15% increase in reported well-being when exposed to natural elements such as greenery and sunlight (Humanspaces: The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace, 2015). Furthermore, Ihab Elzeyadi’s study at the University of Oregon found nearly 10% of employee absences can be attributed to architecture with no connection to nature, such as no windows or views of trees and landscapes (Elzeyadi, 2011). When considering how to improve employee productivity and reduce absenteeism—key challenges that impact company bottom lines—including more windows and natural light, providing open air spaces for walking, and adding greenery on company campuses can make a notable difference.

Incorporating nature matters for our children as well. A study that tracked more than 3,000 children living in southern California over eight years found that those who lived closer to parks and recreation resources had lower Body Mass Indexes (BMI) at age 18 than those who lived further away. In fact, it was estimated that if all the children had matching access, nearly 10% would see their BMIs move from overweight to normal, and 2% would move from obese to overweight (Wolch et al., Health Place, 2010). As a city planner or mayor, it is hard to pass policies to change the health behaviors of an individual family or child—but simply adding a park in an urban area could be the change that allows a child to play a game of tag outside with friends instead of staying indoors glued to a video game.

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