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An Illinois River Almanac

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Immerse Yourself in Nature


Nature provides a number of benefits.  Trees provide oxygen, help to clean the air, and can reduce energy consumption.  Spending time in nature can also have significant benefits to your health, as well.  The National Park Service recently put together a comical advertisement for the national parks.  In this ad, a doctor tells his patient that his NEL’s (Nature Engagement Levels) are low.  Completely made up, but it does bring up a great point.  Nature has some significant health benefits.

Nature, Green Space, Forests - they all have some studied benefits to both physical and mental health.  Beyond the health benefit that being active provides, a study done in Tokyo, Japan showed that spending time in and around trees boosts the immune system.  Time spent in nature can increase white blood cell counts giving the body the ability to fight off infection more successfully.  Trees give off chemicals known as phytoncides that protect them from disease.  When we spend time around trees, we breathe in some of these chemicals causing an increase in the number and activity of our white blood cells.  One study suggested that a long weekend spent in nature could boost our immune system for as long as 30 days.

Are you taking a Vitamin D supplement?  Nature could provide you with all of the Vitamin D that you need.  Exposure to sunlight produces Vitamin D and there are many benefits to this.  It is responsible for aiding in the uptake of calcium and helps to combat osteoporosis.  It is also thought to help those suffering with cancer and Alzheimer’s.  Being out in nature is also thought to be linked to reduced occurrence of diabetes, auto immune disorders, multiple sclerosis, and heart disease.

Time spent in nature also reduces stress.  This has both physical and psychological benefits.  Reduced stress can lower blood pressure.  Time spent in nature and around trees also has been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.  Nature also reduces feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue.  Stress also reduces the body’s immune response further adding to the benefits to the immune system by reducing stress.  One study showed that hospital patients who were able to either see or be in a green space had shorter recovery times than other patients.

Being in nature can improve your sleep as well.  Our bodies respond to cues to tell us when to sleep and when to wake up.  This is known as a circadian rhythm.  The bright artificial lights and other electronics can mess up the natural rhythm of the sleep wake cycle.  Spending just a couple of nights in nature can help to reset your sleep cycle.  Studies have shown that the “blue” light that is produced by computer monitors and TV screens can disrupt the release of melatonin making it harder to sleep at night.

Artificial light has a negative effect on our eyesight.  Children who spend an average of two or more hours a day outside were four times less likely to be nearsighted.  In addition to this, the multiple focal lengths that nature offers help to keep our eyes strong.  Staring at a computer screen all day weakens the eyes but going out and enjoying nature (and focusing on things at several different distances) helps to combat the effects of staring at something that is two feet from your face all day.

 

Nature also has mental benefits, as well.  A study done at Glasgow University showed that physical activity done in nature lowers the risk of poor mental health and can reduce the risk of development of mental health issues.  This does not have to be a run. Simply walking or hiking can offer these benefits.  Nature also has been shown to ease the symptoms of depression.  A study by the University of Michigan showed that “group nature walks [are] linked with significantly lower depression and perceived stress” as well as “enhanced mental well-being.”

Nature has also been seen to improve focus.  With busy lives that pull you in many different directions overstimulation can be a real issue.  Nature offers a break from this overstimulation and allows the brain the opportunity to “relax.”  This allows for an increase in focus and attention levels.  This has been shown to improve the attention and concentration of children. Studies conducted showed that children who spent time in nature showed a significant reduction in ADD/ADHD symptoms in children across age groups, genders and geographic regions.

So the question is, “Are your NEL’s low?”  Get out and enjoy nature.  Sit and listen to the birds as they migrate, take a hike or just sit a read under a tree.  The weather is cool and the leaves will soon be changing colors.  This is an excellent time to improve your health by engaging nature.

If you have questions, please contact Jason Haupt (jdhaupt@illinois.edu) for more information.

 



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