SS 285 – The Health Benefits of Getting Outdoors

Episode 285 Show Notes


Grant and Heavey chat about the benefits of getting outdoors, particularly in nature. What effect does nature have on our health?

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[05:13] Healthy Parks, Healthy Person

Ryan is a park ranger who also does personal training on the side. He started a program in his state called Healthy Parks, Healthy Person. It’s an app that gives people points and rewards for getting outside into the park and doing healthy activities. They also have a park prescription component for health care providers. The goal is to connect health with nature and to create a conduit for that to happen more often. Ryan requested to hear an episode on health benefits of exposure to nature and getting outdoors. 

[07:13] The Overall Benefits of Nature

People need Vitamin D which they get from going outdoors and being under the sun. The air is much better in nature as well. 

There are a lot of benefits to being outside and getting in touch with nature – spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. Grant lists these three:

1. Exercise

The deeper into nature you go, the harder it is to get there and the more exercise you’re going to get. For example, backpacking 12 miles with 60 pounds on your back is a challenge. You’re not just having a cardiovascular workout but there’s a strength component as well.

2. The element of time and the appreciation of surroundings

Being in nature allows you to be more present in the moment so you get to appreciate what’s in front of you. You just can’t be more present than stepping into the beauty of nature. 

3. Element of care

You have to be prepared to make sure you’re safe. It’s a challenge in itself so you have to develop some skill sets. 

[16:00] Music and Garden: Therapy for Neurological Diseases

Writer and physician Olive Sacks writes this:

“As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

[18:43] Health Benefits of Nature

There is a pretty significant amount of research exploring the health benefits of getting out into nature. Everything from immune system strengthening, reduction in depression and anxiety, reductions in blood glucose, heart disease, faster recovery from surgery, and the list keeps going on and on and on. You name it, there’s been research that has looked into whether being in nature or exposure to gardens or what have you can produce a benefit.

There’s even a study showing that those living in the greenest areas in the US, the UK, and China have the lowest risk for mortality. With that said, it’s very difficult to separate out confounders in all of these studies. 

[21:24] A Japanese Study on Forest Therapy

The biggest body of evidence around the health effects from nature has been conducted in Japan because of their deep interest and connection with nature. Heavey found one paper that was titled Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy: A Review of the Research in Japan.

It was a review of 52 different papers. They said in the paper that the first investigation they found of the physiological effects of being in the forest dated back to 1990. They found that forest therapy has been shown to decrease salivary cortisol, decrease pulse rate, decrease blood pressure, and has positively affected HRV all through different controlled trials. 

One study showed that 20 hypertensive males experienced greater drops in blood pressure from walks in the forest than similar walks within an urban environment. 

Heavey says it’s difficult to separate the intervention of being in nature or from other confounders. Even the best-controlled studies are tracking short term outcomes. It’s very difficult from the research to be able to show cause and effect from this. But there are definite benefits that are due to nature itself. With that said, you’re not going to suddenly change the prognosis of your heart disease by going for one hike in the woods.

[24:38] Hitting Our Four Pillars of Health (and the 5th one too!)

There are very real and beneficial outcomes to be had from spending time in nature. Heavey is a bit skeptical about the degree to which they are due from nature, but certainly, nature forms one of the most perfect conduits for health. It’s a perfect opportunity to hit on almost all of our pillars. You can be active when you’re in nature. You can de-stress when you’re in nature. It’s hard to find other similar catalysts for experiencing and feeling that level of presence aside from seeing beautiful scenery. And, there’s always an opportunity for the fifth pillar out in nature as well.

When it comes to nutrition, you can go fishing. Being able to provide for yourself brings you another level of self-appreciation and self-confidence.

At the end of the day, spending time in nature has a ton of benefits. So enjoy nature as much as you can. Check out Healthy Parks, Healthy Person, and give it a go.

[28:38] Can You Mimic Nature at Home Though?

Heavey just realized one thing from the study mentioned above is that the response was highly individual. There’s a great variety across people. Maybe as a whole, it’s very de-stressing, relaxing, and that’s the thing that’s causing the benefit for most people. 

But at the same time, what about the people that are scared of bugs and would probably end up getting more stressed? So de-stressing is a big part of this. If you find yourself being on edge all the time, maybe this might not work well for you. Then perhaps try to find a way to eliminate the stressor component of bugs. If you live in New York, take a stroll through Central Park. If you have movement limitations, you can work around that too. 

Ultimately, if you can find ways to expose yourself to the beneficial components of being outdoors – the physical activity side, the being present side, the de-stressing, the social interaction, all of those elements – then you’re going to experience many of the same benefits.



Healthy Parks, Healthy Person

Harvard Study on COVID-19 PM2.5

Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy: A Review of the Research in Japan

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