The Science of the Outdoors: Why Adventurers are Happier and Healthier
Health is more than just being disease free. The World Health Organization recognizes health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”
Dating back to the early major cities in China and Greece, healthcare was intertwined with foliage, water and natural elements. These aspects were considered fundamental to people’s well-being and recovery. As the industrial revolution took centre stage, these natural elements have increasingly been dismissed and, in many cases, have disappeared from healing centres altogether.
The current fast-paced society is far removed from recognizing health as a pyramid of physical, mental and social well-being. Rather, its focus has shifted to expelling and/or managing disease and disease like symptoms with pharmaceuticals and invasive procedures. In many scenarios, pharmaceuticals and invasive procedures are essential to the first step of recovery. Yet recovery is more than just one step. It is a gradual process which seems to lack a natural element in this day and age.
Although accessing nature may require effort, the minimal burden is overshadowed by the long-term benefits in the reduction of disease and disease like symptoms that plague society. Whether it’s a visit to the mountain or to a lake, the natural setting exposes you to environmental chemicals, biological agents and neural reactions that have many known health benefits.
Thanks to dedicated scientists, we have a plethora of research noting plants’ abilities to give off organic compounds that help with blood pressure, autonomic activity (the unconscious activity of your body) and boost immune function (Komori T et al 1995; Glaser & Kiecolt-Glaser 2005).
The air surrounded by trees, mountains and moving water reduces depression and helps with sleep (Morita et al 2011; Goel N et al 2005). Greener areas have been tied with lower rates of obesity—in many cases mutually exclusive from physical activity (Bell et al 2008; Dadvand et al 2014; Lachowycz & Jones 2011) .
The list extends to: restoring & improving attention; recovery from stress ; stronger pro-social ties, increased generosity; reduction in pain; short- and long-term benefits related to cancer; reduced anxiety; faster medical recovery; and reduction in migraines to name just a few. (Chow & Lau 2015; Gamble KR et al 2014; Brown et al 2016; Brown et al 2013; Weinstein et al 2009; Cohen et al 2008; Yamada 2007; Li et al 2007; Li et al 2010; Maas et al 2009; Song et al 2014; Ulrich 1984).
To examine a particular point of interest in nature, let’s take a look at how scientists have found waterfalls benefit our bodies. To see a waterfall is one thing, but to experience it is another. Why is that? A notable reason is that water produces negative ions. Since the 1950s, researchers have been exploring the naturally occurring negative ion phenomenon (although a European Monk in the late 1700s suspected its benefits). It wasn’t until recently that researchers have had the equipment to study negative ions in the lab.
The phenomenon is most naturally found near waterfalls. The largest known generator is Niagara Falls—producing 100,000 negative ions per cubic centimeter/per second (Niagara Falls Review). The event occurs when oxygen molecules combine with several water molecules creating a negative-ion cluster.
You may be thinking, “So what?” Well, interestingly enough, studies have shown that inhaling water generated negative ions increases the activity of the body's natural killer cells. Studies have seen these benefits in mice with chronic skin inflammation. This opposed to the skin inflammation becoming significantly worse when exposed to electrically generated negative ions. Furthermore, the same group of researchers found another unique discovery. Mice injected with a chemical carcinogen and exposed to water generated negative ions experienced significantly lower rates of cancer than the group of mice that did not get this treatment (Yamada, 2007).
This doesn’t mean you should go and inhale waterfalls 24/7 and anticipate these rules. But it should make you intrigued by how these natural elements provide such benefits. Although that's in the physical form, so are these benefits emitted by something as basic as seeing a picture of nature?
Luckily, you don’t have to be in the physical environment in order to experience the benefits (although the results are more profound when you are in nature). Some studies have shown that exposure to images of trees, grass and fields can increase parasympathetic nervous activity and decrease heart rate (Gladwell et al 2012; Brown et al 2013). Images of nature have also been found to improve attention, quality of life and reduction in pain (Eggert J 2015; Gamble KR et al). Furthermore, the well-being of a patient or family member can be positively influenced by incorporating natural elements into the environment of a waiting, emergency or a patient room (Beukeboom CJ 2012; Nanda U 2012; Velarde & Tveit 2007). Although the research isn’t extensive, it seems promising.
Personally, I have been in many waiting rooms—primarily hospitals. During the time spent in a waiting room, we get bored, fatigued and agitated if we encounter excessive wait times. But I have discovered in the instances where there are natural elements or images of nature, I have felt less fatigued and agitated.
Two years ago, I experienced a critical electrolyte imbalance and my blood sodium level dropped to record shattering numbers (NA 95—a number that typically kills or leaves people with brain damage). It was later learned that this was caused by a pituitary tumor. During that stay, I recall laying in my hospital room, not answering or talking to anyone and simply staring at the walls. I would focus on the medical equipment and the doctors name on the white board. After not seeing daylight for a few days, I remember laying in my room and focusing on the TV that had a reflection of a partially opened window from the opposite end of my room. Obviously, my brain was deprived, both internally and externally.
Thinking back, I wonder how I would have felt if there had been one or two images of nature in my room? Would my body have recovered faster? Would I have gotten out of the ICU faster? Would I have avoided the roller coaster ride of getting out of the ICU only to be wheeled back hours later worse than I started?
Writing this today, I can’t say for sure. But I can ask the question, “Do we have enough nature in our lives?” How easy would it be to populate waiting rooms and hospital hallways with beautiful scenes of waterfalls and coastlines? Could these same images be added to facilities where residents struggle with Alzheimer’s or Dementia?
In my opinion, all of these benefits have been documented in research because humans have had a strong connection with the physical environment for so long. As society became more industrialized, the gap between the human experience and nature has increased. Leaving our body and mind with a craving for something so basic and simple.
I encourage everyone to do their homework and make their own decision. In the United States we are experiencing a health crisis. We need more of something to fix the path that we’re on. Experienced doctors, nurses, researchers and scientific discoveries are trying to move us in the right direction. Perhaps in the meantime, we can use a little boost. We shouldn’t ignore that unique element that has been providing therapy for centuries—nature. Get out and explore it. You will thank yourself later.