Maybe you’ve noticed the benefits of nature in your life. When you spend a weekend outdoors—camping, fishing, hiking or even lying in a hammock—you just feel better. That’s one of the reasons so many of us spend our vacations at campgrounds or at the lake. People have always flocked to the outdoors to “get away from it all,” even when there was less to get away from. A hundred years ago, doctors even prescribed fresh air as a cure for some illnesses.
While many medical treatments from a hundred years ago are questionable, the benefits of the outdoors are still being studied today. In recent years, scientific research has supported the idea that nature is good for our physical and mental health—and now we even know some of the reasons why. If you’re an avid camper, you probably don’t need another excuse to spend time outside. Even so, here are 9 surprising benefits of nature:
1. Outdoor air is cleaner.
Nature really is the best place to find fresh air. Outdoor air quality tends to be better than indoor air quality. In fact, according to the EPA, the air inside homes and businesses can have 2 to 5 times more pollutants than the air outside! (Yes, even in the city.) A build-up of household cleaners, building materials, air fresheners, natural gas from stoves, and other fumes can easily become trapped indoors. Of course, outdoor air isn’t completely pure, but heat and wind work together to disperse pollutants across much larger areas, reducing the harm they can cause.
2. Sunlight provides much-needed Vitamin D.
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that builds and maintains healthy bones. But there’s also research that shows it can strengthen the immune system and improve our mood. People can get Vitamin D from certain foods such as fish and dairy, but most of the Vitamin D our body receives (80-90%) is from the sun. Instead of popping another supplement, head outdoors instead.
3. Nature’s sounds lower stress and improve mental alertness.
Not all sounds in nature are pleasant, but an increasing number of studies are finding that certain nature sounds are beneficial to people. For instance, listening to birdsong has been shown to have unexpected positive effects. In Florence Williams’s book The Nature Fix, she writes: “Psych studies using birdsong consistently show improvements in mood and mental alertness. An experiment at an elementary school in Liverpool found that students listening to birdsong were more attentive after lunch than students who didn’t listen.” Of course, other experts point out that the type of birdsong matters. (For instance, the screech of a bluejay might not put you in a good mood. But you already knew that.)
4. Nature’s scents lower stress too.
In addition to sounds, there are also specific scents in nature that have positive effects on our minds and bodies. One example is trees. Some species of trees—especially evergreens—produce phytoncides, essential oils that are meant to discourage insects. But these chemicals aren’t harmful to humans. In fact, they can be quite helpful. Studies in Japan have shown that walking among trees and being exposed to phytoncides can lower cortisol, the stress hormone, and increase white blood cell count.
5. Sunlight regulates your inner clock and lifts your mood.
Our sleep/wake cycles (also known as our circadian rhythms) are regulated by exposure to natural light. That means if you’re in a windowless office all day, your brain doesn’t get the necessary “cues” from sunlight that tell it to be alert and awake. If you spend time outdoors in the morning, the exposure to sunlight has been shown to boost mood and help regulate your inner clock. (That’s one of the reasons that people who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder are often told to spend time outdoors or use light therapy in the morning.)
6. Nature’s pace is easier for our brains to process.
At best, our brains have the processing speed of a very slow computer. In our modern lives, we try to multi-task and work quickly, but there are limits to how much information we can mentally handle. That’s why things like too much screen-time, too much news scrolling, and too much task-switching can leave us feeling depleted and stressed. (Well, it’s one of the reasons anyway.) Nature moves much more slowly than most things in our modern lives and that has a soothing effect on our minds. Sounds like it’s time to pack up the camper for some mind time.
7. Nature’s patterns reduce stress.
Nature is full of fractals, infinitely repeating visual patterns. Things like leaves, snowflakes, and waves are made up of fractals. In The Nature Fix, Richard Taylor, a nanoparticle physicist at the University of Oregon says, “Your visual system is in some way hardwired to understand fractals.” And according to Taylor, because of that wiring, a stress-reduction response is triggered in our brains when we see these predictable patterns in nature.
8. Outdoor exercise is more physically challenging—and boosts self-esteem.
What’s the difference between running 3 miles on a treadmill at the gym and pounding the pavement outside? Or between biking on a stationary bike versus hitting a local trail? One main difference is intensity. Studies have shown that outdoor exercise tends to be more strenuous than indoor exercise because in nature your body has to deal with variables such as wind resistance and changes in terrain. This means that outdoor workouts like hiking tend to be more difficult and likely, more beneficial. Another benefit of outdoor exercise? Studies have shown that exercise that happens outdoors provides a natural boost (no pun intended!) to our self-esteem.
9. Time in nature boosts creativity.
If you want to be more creative, head outdoors—at least according to neuroscientist David Strayer from the University of Utah. Strayer has spent years studying the psychological effects of the outdoors. In a study he conducted in 2012, he found that backpackers who spent four days in nature were 50% more creative than when they left. According to Strayer, when people are in nature (and away from things like phones and screens) their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with problem-solving) is finally able to take a break. Strayer says: “You let the prefrontal cortex rest, and all of a sudden these flashes of insight come to you.”