When addressing our health, many of us tend to focus on the quality of our diet and exercise as the primary methods of improving our overall wellness. We often believe that if we perfectly “dial in” our diet and exercise routine, then optimal health will surely follow. This concentration on perfecting both food and fitness in the quest for well-being can often lead to the neglecting of certain important relationships in our lives, particularly relationships with others.
But what about your relationship with nature?
You may not have considered the possibility of fostering a “relationship” with nature – after all, how can you have a relationship with a non-human entity?
From an anecdotal perspective, how many of us have taken a long walk in the woods, and felt soothed by the sound of the wind in the trees and the crisp smell of leaves? Or have been moved by the beauty of a snow-capped mountain range? Who wouldn’t enjoy an evening watching the sunset at the beach, sand between the toes, with the rhythmic ocean waves lapping at the shore?
Experiencing these profound moments of peace, happiness, or wellness in the context of nature is a universal event, and demonstrates that contact with nature is an integral part of our well-being as humans. In a public health context, exposure to nature has been used as therapy for short-term recovery from stress or mental fatigue, faster physical recovery from illness, and long-term overall improvement on people’s health and well being (1).
Research supports the theory that our relationship with nature is a fundamental component of maintaining good health. This “biophilia hypothesis” suggests that there is an innate affiliation of human beings to other living organisms, both flora and fauna, and perhaps even an innate bond with nature more generally.
The biophilia theory is supported by both common sense and clinical evidence. Many controlled trials and observational studies have demonstrated the positive therapeutic value of both the physical and visual exposure to nature, with benefits shown for a diverse range of diagnoses spanning from schizophrenia to obesity.
This biophilia theory makes sense in an evolutionary context as well.
Many species of animals use habitat selection as a criteria for successful survival, focusing mainly on patterns of tree density and openness of view. Early humans were no different; a preference for living near water and an abundance of green plants would have indicated greater food availability, with both edible vegetation and herbivorous animals in plentitude (2).
The ability to identify relaxing, restorative natural settings would have also allowed paleolithic humans the opportunity to recover from stress or fatigue, and would have been adaptive to survival. Those individuals who were able to settle in these types of environments would have gained a survival advantage, which may explain human beings’ preference for certain landscapes.
While we evolved outdoors and amongst nature for most of the last two million years of our species’ existence, the movement to a largely indoor environment has been a recent development for humans. Much like our diet, our physical environment has changed drastically in a comparatively short amount of time.
We have broken our strong connection with the natural environment very recently, and have not had the chance to adapt to our new life of shelter and confinement. The advent of electricity has been even more recent, allowing our world to be inundated with artificial light at any time of day (or night).
A lack of sunlight and/or excessive amounts of artificial light can have a variety of negative health consequences. (Diane Sanfilippo of Balanced Bites has written an excellent post regarding the problems with artificial light and the different ways you can reduce your exposure.)
Our relationship with nature has been overcome by our relationship with technology.
Recent news stories have focused on the idea of “nature deficit disorder”, suggesting that children who spend too much time staring at screens may develop attention deficits, hyperactivity, or depression (3). While our children may be bearing the brunt of this nature deficit, it stands to reason that those of us that spend forty hours a week or more with our eyes glued to a computer screen may have similar negative health consequences.
While we may not be able to quit our jobs, sell our houses, and move out into the wilderness (or can we?), there are many ways to alleviate our growing nature deficit:
- Take your exercise outside – Research shows that exercising outside confers even greater physical and mental benefits compared to the same exercise indoors. Take a long walk at your local park (bundle up if it’s cold) rather than plugging away on the treadmill in your fluorescent-lit gym. Take advantage of warmer, sunny days and move your workout into the wilderness. It may take some creativity or extra planning, but the mental and physical benefits will be worth the effort. You may even find yourself enjoying your workout more than usual!
- Invest in a pet – Companion animal relationships have been essential to the survival of primitive humans, and pet-keeping was common in hunter-gatherer societies. Pet ownership not only gives people a sense of companionship and nurturance, but also provides a connection to nature in a more tangible sense. Contact with animals has been shown to decrease risk of heart disease, lessen anxiety, and reduce depression. Not to mention, there’s nothing more motivating to get outside than a hyperactive dog!
- Grow an indoor garden – If getting outside on a regular basis is too challenging, consider the addition of indoor foliage to your home’s interior design. Studies show that indoor plants can boost mood, improve air quality, and reduce anxiety and fatigue. Even if you live in an urban environment, bringing green foliage into your living space can greatly benefit your connection with the natural world.
Our relationship with nature is a vital component of our wellbeing, and one often neglected due to the concerns of modern life. In order to more fully address our health and wellness as humans, we must consider the biological appropriateness of our environment to be just as important as that of our diet and exercise choices.
Now I’d like to hear from you. How do you nurture your relationship with nature? What are your favorite ways to interact with the natural world?