“Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don’t just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses. One of the pathways to health may be to spend more time in natural settings,” Richard Ryan.
As some of our friends and family know, Thom and I have been renting a house for a month every summer up in Idyllwild for around 17 years. Idyllwild is a very small mountain town, (less than 2,000 permanent residents) about an hour from our home in the desert. Back in 1993 we did it for the first time because, quite frankly, we couldn’t afford any other type of vacation. It seemed like a good way to escape the desert heat and was a great bargain as well. Little did we know back then that the experience would be so rewarding, that we would still be doing it 17 years later. Now, not only do we consider it still an amazing vacation value, we are living examples of the restorative power of spending time in nature.
The funny thing is, most people don’t realize how important it is for all of us to spend time in nature. Living in the desert we normally have a very long year-round season of outdoor weather, but during the summer when the temperatures get quite warm, we spend more and more time inside with an air conditioner running in the background. People who live in more traditional climates often do the opposite. They spend time outside in the summer, but then hunker down by the fire in the winter. Either way, the human body is usually deprived of important natural benefits for several months unless people find a way to get outside and enjoy the world around them during their off season. Add that to the current urbanization and addiction to technology, and less and less people are spending time outdoors.
Why is time in nature important? A series of studies in 2010 coordinated by Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, confirms that the experience of being in nature causes people to feel more alive. Ryan sums it up by saying, “Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.” Better yet, nature not only makes us feel more alive and energized, it has proven to benefit both our mental and physical health, and our overall sense of well-being.
Ryan and others conducted a series of tests using college students to prove their point. In one test subjects were taken on either a 15-minute walk in nature or another in a building with long hallways. A second test had participants view a slideshow of nature shots or in contrast, buildings around the country. A third test asked those involved to imagine themselves in a variety of situations both active and sedentary, as well as both inside or outside a building. In addition, subjects spent a series of days recording their exercise, social interactions, time spent outside and inside (including time spent by windows and with plants). According to the test results in every single instance, those involved felt consistently more energetic when they spent time in natural surroundings. Just 20 minutes a day was a significant benchmark for improved vitality.
Another noteworthy study showed that just 30-40 minutes watching a nature video with around 15 minutes of running water decreased subjects’ stress levels 20 to 30%. A 1998 study done in Japan reported that nine walks through an old growth forest over a six-year period brought about a significant improvement in the blood sugar levels of patients with type 2 diabetes. A medical research study in Wales found that people living in green and natural areas were three times more likely to be physically active than those living in less green places and their likelihood of being overweight or obese was about 40 percent less. In contrast, people living in areas with high amounts of litter and graffiti and less greenery were 50 percent less likely to be physically active and their likelihood of being overweight or obese was also 50 percent higher. It has even been demonstrated that the ability to look out of a hospital window following surgery helps a patient heal faster with less pain.
Most of these studies aren’t new or even difficult to believe. There is something in all of us that understands how important it is to be outside and experience the sound of the breeze through trees, the flow of a creek over rocks, or the twitter of birds singing. Still, just like with many things we know are both good for us and worth the effort, taking the time and insuring the experience often gets talked about rather than done.
Granted, it hasn’t always been easy to come to Idyllwild when Thom and my schedules get out of whack and there is a lot going on in our lives. One year I had an abscessed tooth and driving 50 miles to the dentist wasn’t much fun. Another year I was recovering from surgery and had to take several trips to the doctor for scheduled checkups. Early on, Thom’s work was so busy that he had to commute the hour-long trip three or four times a week. Still, there hasn’t been one year in all of them that we didn’t feel nurtured and restored after the month was over. And perhaps, if the studies are true, not only were we more energized by the time we got home, but the health issues and stress we had going were mitigated merely by our hours sitting in the trees.
SMART Living requires that each of us orchestrate and create our lives in a way that generates the most harmony and wellbeing possible—and that includes spending time in nature. Feeling the cool breeze on our skin, breathing in oxygen created by the living greenery around us, seeing the gentle sway of trees, hearing the scurry of creatures in the nearby forest, all help to remind us that we are parts of the whole—the web of life—and that does indeed make one feel alive.