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The mental and physical health benefits of ecotherapy

There are countless studies that prove ecotherapy (often referred to as nature therapy) is beneficial for your physical and mental health.

Photo by Song_about_summer on Shutterstock

Key Takeaways
  • What was once considered a simple practice and ideology about the benefits of nature has been proven in multiple studies to positively impact our physical and mental health.
  • Some of the benefits of spending time in nature can be: a boost in killer-cells that fight off viruses, an ability to maintain focus and improvement in mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.
  • To explain the all-encompassing benefits of nature, the Japanese have coined the term "shinrin yoku", which translates to "forest bathing."

Ecotherapy (also referred to as nature therapy) has been proven to be effective and is used in various practices and cultures around the world—and yet, it is still one of the most under-appreciated forms of therapy.

For a period of time, nature therapy was considered a simple practice for those who believe that we are connected to and impacted by the natural environments around us. However, there is now more research to support this ideology.

A simple walk in the forest can have more of a positive impact on your health than you may realize.Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

The benefits of nature have been studied for decades. In fact, in 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term “shinrin yoku“, which means “forest bathing.”

Nature increases activity in natural killer cells that fight off viruses.

While we stroll around the forest, breathing in the fresh air, airborne chemicals like phytoncides (a chemical many plants give off to fight disease) are also entering our system. When this happens, the human body responds by increasing the number of natural killer blood cells (a type of white blood cell) which attack virus-infected cells.

In one 2009 study, participants spent 3 days/2 nights in a forested area. Their blood and urine were sampled before, during, and after the trip. Natural killer cell activity measured significantly higher during the days spent in the forest and the effect lasted up to 30 days after the trip.

This suggests that a few days in nature every month could potentially allow your natural killer cell activity to maintain at a higher functioning level, protecting you better.

Spending time in nature has numerous mental health benefits.

This groundbreaking research analysis of 10 UK studies involving over 1200 participants considered all the ways time in nature (known as green exercise) can improve a person’s mental health and wellbeing.

The results of this analysis proved that both men and women have similar self-esteem improvements after experiencing time spent in nature, and the boost in mood particularly impacted men. The analysis showed the greatest improvements in mental health with the participants who were struggling with a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.

A more recent study looked at the relationship between psychological responses and forest environments. Using the Profile of Mood States questionnaire, this research found that time spent in nature significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, and fatigue.

A walk in nature is more beneficial than a walk in the city.

Results of a 2008 study compared the restorative effects of natural versus urban environments, with natural environments proving vastly more beneficial. Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, is able to modestly grab your attention in a way that requires no effort or additional actions. Urban areas can be filled with stimulation that captures your attention and requires additional directed actions (for example, stopping at a crosswalk).

This is why a walk in nature is much more beneficial for our minds than a walk in an urban setting—our minds are able to “switch off,” giving time for restorative rest.

Nature related activities may be of use in future ADHD therapies.

Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF) is something you may be struggling with without even realizing it. It’s a very common neuro-psychological phenomenon that results in the overuse of the brain’s attention mechanisms. These mechanisms typically work for us to help us cope with distraction while maintaining on a specific task, but when we overuse that function, it becomes weaker and our ability to focus on task lessens.

Along with that, the part of the brain affected by attention fatigue (the right frontal cortex) is also involved in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This study shows that children diagnosed with ADHD who spent time in natural outdoor environments show a reduction in ADHD symptoms. This is promising for the field of ADHD research, as nature therapy could potentially be used as part of an all-encompassing treatment plan.

Various therapies have been incorporating nature-related benefits for years, including:

While research continues on the benefits of nature, one thing has been made clear through decades of study and practice: Nature is good for your health, likely in more ways than we can even imagine.

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