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Headline: Let nature nurture your healthBalance
Let nature
your health

Spending time outdoors can
boost your health and well-being
Photo of Karen L. KyliukBy Karen L. Kyliuk Summer 2017
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When was the last time you took a walk in a local park, had an outdoor picnic or went for a hike in the woods?

Contact with nature actually nurtures us in ways nothing else can. In your mind, imagine a vibrant sunset over a lush landscape with water glistening in a stream nearby. How does this make you feel? Do you associate this image with a sense of calm or does it rekindle memories of any past outdoor experiences? This visual exercise is intended to remind us that interacting with nature is a vital part of who we are as humans.

Interacting with and exploring nature reduces stress, lowers anxiety and improves mental cognition and memory. Nature exposure also supports healthy lifestyles, lowers our risk of cardiovascular disease, improves our immune system, increases self-esteem and encourages social connections. A recent study found that nature can even speed up healing. There was a profound difference in post-surgery recovery time for patients who had a window view of natural landscapes compared to those who did not.

Photo of a branch with green leaves

So why is it so hard to make interacting with our natural environment part of a regular routine?

It may be tied to the fact that the majority of people are now living in urbanized settings, with the prediction that by 2050, 70 per cent of our population will be in cities, with little or no exposure to nature. Studies also show that people who work in buildings without natural light or window views experience higher levels of self-reported stress and lower job satisfaction.

Conservationists suggest that people and nature are uniquely intertwined and that maintaining the health of both is essential to ensuring a good quality of life for generations to come. We could definitely learn something from the Indigenous peoples in Canada and their cultural ways of living in harmony with nature and respecting what our natural habitat has to offer.

It is not just vacations such as camping or fishing trips that can be therapeutic. It is important to realize that outdoor adventures may not be realistic for everyone. It takes planning, travel time and money to make a trip happen, which in itself can cause stress.

The good news is there is strong evidence that even shorter periods of contact with nature results in the same significant physical and psychological health benefits.

A Stanford University-led study examined the psychological impact of taking walks in treed areas on campus versus taking walks in a city's downtown area. The walking paths in nature lowered rumination linked to depression, with self-reported positive mood and increased overall well-being. Interestingly, the walks in urban settings had fewer benefits due to the noise and stimuli such as traffic, construction sounds, and visual advertising, which over-stimulated the brain rather than allowing the mind to rest.

Similarly, population-level studies cited in the Harvard Natural Environments Initiative report indicated a direct correlation between the existence of green space in urban settings and improved mental well-being. American psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, describe natural environments as restorative environments when four key elements are present. These elements are:

Fascination - when there is an experience of effortless interest or curiosity.

Escape - when there is a sense of being away from a usual setting.

Connection - when there is a sense of being part of a bigger whole.

Compatibility - when the natural environment satisfies the purpose desired.

Photo of couple sitting on a dock Nature is an integral part of maintaining optimal health . . .

In most cities, we are fortunate to have access to parks, protected nature reserves and urban forests. Each of these natural settings meets the criteria outlined, so why not take advantage of them?

The fact is nature is an integral part of maintaining optimal health and reducing the risk for both mental and physical health ailments. In essence, we are part of a complex ecosystem, and nurturing ourselves through nature is an untapped strategy to promote overall health and well-being. Nature is a resource that seems to be overlooked or forgotten, yet is clearly an invaluable part of living life on this beautiful planet.

Karen L. Kyliuk is a mental health resource and education facilitator with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Boost your health and well-being

Looking for ideas to nurture more nature into your life? Here are some ways to get started:

Mindful walking in a park or woodland area while noticing the trees, birds, sounds and breeze on your face. Be aware of your breathing, noticing the fresh outdoor air as it enters your lungs.

Family or community scavenger hunts in a local park. Prepare a list of items to find such, as leaves, acorns, stones, or insects like lady bugs, butterflies or dragonflies.

Green exercise is exactly what it sounds like. Move your regular physical activity or cardio workout outside, whether it is jogging, biking or yoga in the park.

Community gardening offers a hands-on way to interact with nature, feeling the earth in your hands and nurturing plants to grow. It can also be social and help build a sense of connection with others.

Summer fun in the sun, whether it is a day trip or weekend visit to one of our Provincial parks to enjoy the beautiful beaches here in Manitoba. Gazing over a large body of water has a calming effect.

Birdwatching can be relaxing and educational. Sit on a bench in front of a pond, observe the water ripples as the ducks or geese swim, and witness their attentiveness to their nests. Consider taking out a library book on native birds in your region to guide your birdwatching exploration.

Reflective time in a quiet place, perhaps by a large tree or in a flowering field, taking a moment to sketch or journal about the beauty of the natural world around you.

Farm visits - drive out to rural farms to pick berries or to observe animals such as cows, horses, pigs and chickens. This can be relaxing and you may also discover that farm animals can be quite entertaining.

Explore dog parks with your furry friend. Pets can be a motivating factor to get outside, regardless of the weather, promoting good health for you both.