A man and a woman reaching across a raised garden bed to pass a plant to the other.

MY SCORECARD: Outdoor Time in Nature

The fifth letter in MY SCORECARD from the NCHPAD MENTOR Program, O, can have a powerful effect on improving your health. It stands for Outdoor Time in Nature. Spending time outside may seem like an obvious way to improve health, but it has more benefits than you might think. Being in nature with trees, flowers, plants and birds has enormous physiological and mental health benefits.

We spend so much time indoors looking at screens, so connecting with nature has become even more important. If you have recently acquired a disability or have a new diagnosis, spending time in nature can help you reconnect with your inner self and identity.

When you fully immerse yourself in the outdoors (parks, forests, trails or gardens), your mind, body and spirit connect. Some areas of the world refer to this as forest bathing, a term used to describe the connection to all forms of life found in nature, including animals, birds, trees and flowers.

Benefits of Being Outdoors

Research shows that a significant part of a person’s health is influenced by their physical environment, including access to green spaces, outdoor recreation and community gardens. The mind tends to thrive when surrounded by trees, flowers, plants, water and other natural elements.

Research is also beginning to reveal that the part of our brain responsible for negative thoughts, or rumination, is less active when we are in nature. This helps us stay more mindful and spiritual, two essential aspects of wellness [1].

In a significant study conducted by researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK, findings published in June 2019 in the journal Scientific Reports analyzed data from nearly 20,000 participants in England who completed a survey about their outdoor activities. The study revealed that individuals who spent at least two hours per week in natural environments or parks reported better health and a heightened sense of well-being compared to those who primarily stayed indoors with minimal or no exposure to nature. [2].

Getting outdoors is easier for some than others. Depending on your level of mobility or your availability of green spaces, it could be a challenge to feel connected to nature. If you spend less than two hours a week outdoors in green space such as parks, trails, community gardens and other nature areas, try one of these inclusive strategies to add more nature into your wellness routine!

A Purpose-Driven Outdoor Activity – Gardening

Gardening is considered one of the most engaging ways to interact with nature and is a great way to consistently get outdoors!

Gardening requires physical exertion (e.g., planting, pruning, watering, fertilizing), naturally increasing your levels of physical activity. There are also many ways to garden, including boutique gardens such as rock gardens, herbs and flowers.

If you don’t have space for a home garden, consider utilizing a publicly available community garden. Many community gardens can be found through the American Community Gardening Association at https://www.communitygarden.org/. Plan before your visit to ensure the garden has accessibility features that allow individuals with mobility disabilities to participate in gardening using raised boxes and access to water.

If access to a community garden is not feasible or transportation is limited, consider growing an herb garden. You can cultivate herbs outdoors, or if you live in an apartment, create a small windowsill garden to bring nature indoors. Examples of herbs to grow include rosemary (great for chicken or fish), oregano (useful for many dishes), mint (for hot and cold teas), basil (for cooking and salads) and parsley (for fish, meats and vegetables).

Bring a Little of Nature into the Home

  • Plants and Flowers. If you have limited outdoor access, purchase a plant that you can place in your home. Plants are living, ‘breathing’ gifts of nature and caring for them can provide a sense of purpose. Even flowers can add some perspective of being outdoors in nature. Many grocery stores sell them at inexpensive prices.
  • Spend Time in a Room with a View. Whenever possible, spend time in a well-lit room with a window (tracking with the sun as it moves from east to west) to connect with sunlight and greenery. Views of trees, bushes and other vegetation can brighten your mood and be good for your mental health.
  • Frame Photos of Nature. Even hanging photos or inexpensive paintings of nature can have a positive impact on your mood.

Combine Wellness Domains for an Even Greater Health Effect

Combine one of our other MENTOR wellness domains, Mindfulness, with your time outside and have a mindfulness session outdoors! Sitting in the grass, enjoying the breeze and sunlight on a bench or feeling elements of nature allows you to stay grounded and in the moment. Practice mindfulness your way, or try a guided meditation outdoors to connect with nature!

After practicing mindfulness, take notes and make mindfulness in nature part of your wellness routine. Acknowledge the feelings you felt during your mindfulness session. Find out ways to avoid any distractions that might have come up while you were connecting with nature. Try mindfulness in other outdoor settings like the forest, parks or even your backyard.
Find what benefits you and commit to frequent exercises like these!

Take your normal tasks outside!

If you have a meeting planned for work at the office, suggest a meeting on the go so everyone can take a break from the routine indoor schedule and get some fresh air and sunlight. Do you have a normal dinner planned with the family? Make it a picnic and connect with family and nature in a new spot. Shaking up the normal routine can be a fun new way to enjoy your daily life.

Take a break from technology

While technology feels like a nice escape from reality, it can negatively impact your daily life. The constant desire for stimulation is temporarily satisfied by social media or other time-consuming apps, but it can increase stress, envy, fear, depression and poor concentration.

Rather than craving entertainment through media, find a way out of mind-based stress and suffering through the stillness and silence of parks, gardens and other quiet outdoor spaces. Instead of spending hours on your phone or other devices, find a new hobby to try outside that can be done from your home like painting or bird watching.

Get Active!

Try a new physical activity like hiking or biking to make exercise seem less like a chore and more of an adventure going to new places. Join an exercise group that goes running together or participates in yoga together. Find an organization that offers adaptive outdoor team sports for people with mobility disabilities. There are more options than you know. Get creative and get active! You can find resources for outdoor activities in our recent Get Outdoors Month Resources blog!

References

1- Bratman GN, Hamilton JP, Hahn KS, Daily GC, Gross JJ. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Jul 14;112(28):8567-72. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1510459112. Epub 2015 Jun 29. PMID: 26124129; PMCID: PMC4507237.

2- White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and well-being. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3