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Health Benefits of Being Outdoors

Research links more time in nature with stress reduction

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En español | Marti Erickson always carries two collapsible chairs in her car. When she is having a particularly bad day, she finds a grassy spot, plops down, breathes deeply and soon is soothed by the nature around her.

"The reason I have a couple of those chairs," says the developmental psychologist, "is that my oldest grandchild likes nature breaks, too, and joins me when we're out together."

Based on research and firsthand experience, Erickson says that time spent in nature "may be one of the best and most accessible natural stress-busters any individual or family could find."

She's not alone in that belief. In 2005 in my book Last Child in the Woods, I introduced the term "nature-deficit disorder" — not a medical diagnosis, but a way to describe the growing gap between kids and nature, and the consequences. Many adults later spoke with deep emotion about both their children's deficit and their own. My new book is more about adults. It asks: What would our everyday lives be like if we were as immersed in nature as we are in technology?

A growing body of research links more time in nature — or in home, work or hospital environments enhanced through nature-based design — with reduction of stress and depression, faster healing time and less need for pain medication.

We'd all benefit from more

Spend time in nature and reap the health benefits of vitamin N. — Photo by Mark Power/Magnum

Health care professionals are taking note. In 2010, a pilot program in Portland, Ore., began pairing physicians with park professionals, who helped children and families get their green exercise or, as I call it, their dose of "vitamin N."

Other benefits of vitamin N include enhanced use of the senses and higher work productivity. In 2008, University of Michigan researchers demonstrated that, after just an hour interacting with nature, memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent. In April, researchers at the University of Kansas reported a 50 percent boost in creativity for people who were steeped in nature for a few days.

To reap the benefits of vitamin N, try these:

  • Plant a garden. Create a backyard wildlife habitat. Replant with native species to encourage butterfly and bird migration routes. Bring the outdoors in by using nature-oriented decoration, perhaps an indoor garden.
  • Be a nature mentor to your children or grandchildren. Encourage them to dig holes or build forts. (A small pickup load of dirt provides hours of creative play.)
  • Be a hummingbird — not a helicopter — parent or grandparent. Don't hover over your children or grandchildren, but watch from a distance as they play in nature.
  • Create a nature club where multiple families or groups of adults share hikes and other activities. Get to know nature where you live. As writer Wendell Berry put it, "You can't know who you are until you know where you are."

A final thought: Boomers could be the last generation to remember a time when it was considered normal and expected for children to play in woods and fields. When we leave this earth, will the memory of such experiences leave with us? Reconnecting the young to the natural world (as we reconnect ourselves) could be our greatest, most redemptive cause.

Richard Louv is the cofounder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age.

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