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Nature’s Cure: The remedy for your mind and body that costs nothing

Shannon Harvey
If you live in a city, work in an office, and drive a car, then it’s entirely possible you will spend almost no time outside today. Here in Sydney, we’re in the hyperthermic grip of winter and as I write these words an icy wind bites outside. Cold is not my thing and I’m planning on staying put.

I’m not alone in my reticence to leave the comforting embrace of the heated cafe I’m writing in. After all, a seminal study in the Lancet, demonstrated that cold weather is a major killer, responsible for 7.3 percent of deaths. On days like this, I’m happy to take note and take shelter.

But in an age where we have never been more removed from the outside elements, in a time when more than half of the world’s population is now living in urban areas, where, instead of bathing in the great outdoors, the average person is now bathing seven hours a day in the glow of a blue screen; this also means we are spending less time in nature and it seems our wellbeing may be suffering as a consequence.

People in cities have a 21 percent increased risk of anxiety disorders and a 39 percent higher risk of mood disorders compared to people in rural areas. In fact, when scientists looked at the brains of people living in cities, they found that city dwellers have increased activity in the amygdala, the brain’s stress centre.

It’s not just your metal health that may be affected by your indoor urban lifestyle. You’re more likely to have a chronic disease if you live in a city. In fact, the less green your surroundings, the higher your risk of illness and death. On the flip side, the more green space in your neighbourhood, the less likely you are to have a number of chronic diseases including heart and lung disease and mental illness.

There are of course a host of reasons for this. Cities are noisy, gridlocked and polluted. Living close to nature means you’re more likely to exercise and socialise more, to take in fresh air, and to soak in the sun’s health-giving natural vitamin D, which all help you to stress less and sleep more. In fact, when researchers from the University of Illinois analysed the available research on the link between spending time in nature and having good health, they found 21 possible pathways to explain it. “Nature doesn’t just have one or two active ingredients. It’s more like a multivitamin that provides us with all sorts of the nutrients we need,” said University of Illinois environment and behavior researcher Ming Kuo when the study was released.

My favourite research on this is being done in Japan where scientists are plucking groups of stressed-out business men and women off the streets of Tokyo and planting them in cedar forests. The participants are being encouraged to practice “Shinrin-yoku” or in English, “forest bathing.” Overall, participants experience a 12.4 percent decrease in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a 7.0 percent decrease in sympathetic nervous activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate compared with people in an urban environment. In addition, the forest bathers also report better moods and lower anxiety.

These forest bathing health benefits last as long as 30 days after the participants return to their urban lives, so it’s little wonder that nearly a quarter of the frazzled Japanese population living in mostly urbanised cities is embracing forest bathing. Elsewhere, the medical community is also starting to catch on. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides & Programs is offering guided forest therapy walks and one program in the US is encouraging doctors to “prescribe nature” to patients.

While I’m not suggesting that the answer to all our mental and physical health ailments is as simple as going for a walk outside, there’s no denying that taking time out in nature is cheap and there are few negative side effects. I was intrigued to read that even the study that I used to justify my day spent sipping tea and avoiding the brisk wilderness outside (the one warning that cold weather is a major killer), showed an intriguing disparity between death-by-cold-weather in Sweden (3.9 percent) and death-by-cold-weather in Australia (6.5 percent). In an article for The Conversation, Associate Professor of Public Health at the Queensland University of Technology, Adrian Barnett argues that the Swedes are far more prepared for cold temperatures. They have better clothes and keep their homes warm, as opposed to us Aussies who have glorified tents as homes.

So, with all this in mind, I’m taking a page out of my high-altitude-mountain-loving husband’s book. Jules believes that there’s nothing wrong with cold weather as long as you’ve got the right gear. So, for the good of my brain and my immune system, I’m taking heed of the science, donning my puffer jacket, and going outside.

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