A Doctor’s View: The Restorative Power of Nature during COVID-19

If your social media feed looks anything like mine right now, it’s filled with two things: 1) messages about COVID-19 and 2) nature shots. Amidst the posts about possible supply shortages and staffing fears, people are sharing photos of hikes, campfires, and bicycle rides. A physician colleague posted that it’s the first time ever that he’s gone for a walk with his wife two weekdays in a row.

The importance of spending time in nature is something that I’ve been passionate about for a long time, stretching back to my time as a White House Fellow working alongside Gale Norton, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 2004, we published a piece for the American Journal of Law and Medicine where we discussed the connection between outdoor physical activity and wellness.

From our work encouraging Americans to head outside and lauding the opportunities afforded by the National Parks for respite, reflection, and outdoor recreation, I know that we have an excellent cure for self-isolation and its effects right now: nature.

Photo by Daniel Frank on Unsplash

Nature as medicine

Getting out in nature does more than clear away the figurative mental cobwebs — it has real, measurable physical benefits. Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. In fact, physicians have been encouraged to prescribe nature as a treatment option for their patients. A 2019 study showed that 120 minutes or more spent in nature per week can significantly benefit health and well-being.

One of the many proven benefits to time in nature is enhanced immunity. With a view to the unfolding health crisis, it’s easy to see the merits of giving ourselves every immunological advantage. A 2016 paper reported that two 2-hour forest walks on consecutive days increased the number and activity of anti-cancer NK cells by 50 and 56% respectively, with the impact still noted a month later. Why is this important? Because NK cells also play a role in fighting viral and other infections!

Spending time in nature also gets us off our devices. And I think we can all agree that we’ve been extra-glued to them over the past while as news stories and updates pile up. But when we trade those blue screens for green spaces, our focus shifts. So if you’re having trouble seeing the forest for the trees amongst all the news and changes to our routine, then an actual forest walk may be the best remedy. Nature has a way of shifting our focus and helping us zooming out to see a fuller picture.

The great news is that science tells us that just looking at a picture of nature has restorative benefits.

We also can’t overlook how physical activity in nature can help us optimize our lung capacity. Pneumonia is the main cause of death linked to COVID-19. A daily constitutional, or any kind of physical fitness, can boost your lung expansion capacity. This may be potentially preventative for anyone who contracts the virus, as we know that reduced lung expansion capacity is linked with a greater risk of death from pneumonia. There was never a better or more urgent time to take up that outdoor walking habit that you’ve been meaning to get started on!

The physical benefits of trips into nature aren’t just about what we’re seeing. Nature has its own soundscape. Bird sounds, in particular, have received attention for their ability to engage the human brain and convey important information about the safety of our surroundings. Bird sounds foster a connection with nature, which restores alertness, reduces stress, and promotes a sense of well-being.

Nature also provides a sense of connection. During this strange time, heading into nature gives us a chance to be alone together. Anecdotally, many are reporting that spotting each other outside is giving them a renewed sense of community and connection. And even if we don’t see another person, time in nature provides a different kind of connection. This was demonstrated in a psychiatric study, which explored the effect of gardening amongst adults in an acute psychiatric inpatient setting. The study linked gardening with what is called “attention restoration therapy” and reported that participating in gardening activities “provided an opportunity to feel connected to a larger world.”

Photo by Julius Drost on Unsplash

Get on out there!

Even for areas under a “shelter in place” order, the directive allows for people to go outside, as long as they follow the CDC guidelines for physical distancing, such as staying six feet away from others, covering mouths and noses for coughs and sneezes, and staying home if unwell. While most public facilities operated by The National Parks are closed in areas under “shelter in place” orders, they have so far opted to keep trails and open spaces accessible across the country. On the National Parks website, they offer this timely reminder: “During this challenging time, the parks can be wonderful spaces to walk, hike, run and just appreciate the sun and fresh air.”

Need some ideas to get outside in nature? Find a path that goes down by the river and into the woods. Get your bicycle out of storage. Grab your rollerblades, your skateboard, your stand-up paddleboard. Walk your dog. Take a longer route than usual. Yes, we need to keep a respectable distance from each other, but the outdoors are wide and there is room for everyone.

But wait, you really can’t get outside?

This is a reality for some Americans right now. The great news is that science tells us that just looking at a picture of nature has restorative benefits. And we can even do better:

  1. Documentaries: There is a slew of nature documentaries on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the surfs of Hawaii, to glide over the Rocky Mountains, or swim through the coral reefs of the Caribbean.
  2. Nature sounds: A quick search on your favourite music streaming app will give you a playlist of bird sounds. Or, if you’d prefer a different auditory dose of nature, you can listen to rain, babbling brooks, thunderstorms, or a blustery shore. All of these nature soundscapes have wonderful effects on our well-being.
  3. Virtual tours: Check out Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, who is doing a virtual safari every day about a different animal. Or tour Yosemite National Park virtually and visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, the top of the Half Dome, and the eponymous Yosemite Falls.

If there was ever a time to put the restorative power of nature to the test, it’s now. Get outside if you can. Spring is here.

Physician | Innovator | Nature & Play Advocate

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