Nature’s therapeutic benefits for your mind

(Photo by Derek Sutton on Unsplash)

On behalf of the Ministry of the Environment, Ontario Parks is promoting a movement called Healthy Parks Healthy People, which is “a worldwide movement that works to promote and understand the link between a healthy environment and healthy society.”

A study from BMC Public Health found that exposure to public natural space is “a protective factor for emotional well-being among young people in Canada.” Measuring “muscle tension, blood pressure, and brain activity,” researchers found that stress is significantly reduced when in a natural area. This is partly because being outdoors in nature decreases the stress hormone cortisol, and increases endorphins and dopamine, which are linked to positive affect. 

Research in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health indicates listening to “nature sound and environmental noise,” like birds chirping, water running in a stream, or waves crashing up onto shore, reduces stress. 

Ontario Parks’ website also states that outdoor exposure can even provide relief from psychosomatic concerns such as “irritability, insomnia, tension headaches, and indigestion” and other complex psychological issues like grief. 

Being in nature can also preserve and enhance a person’s capacity for attention and focus. Looking specifically at attention deficit disorder (ADD) in children, a study in Environment and Behaviour found that “the greener a child’s play area, the less severe” their symptoms are and the better their ability to pay attention. This study looked at attention restoration theory, which describes that a person’s mental capacity for attention is limited and can be depleted. The theory explains that “exposure to natural environments encourages more effortless brain function,” which allows the brain to be more efficient with its use of attentional resources and can therefore concentrate for longer.

For Canadians, the average time spent on outdoor activities, a report in 2017 found that 64 per cent of people spent less than two hours outdoors per week, while nearly a third spent less than 30 minutes. Reasons varied among different age groups, but many people reported weather concerns and bugs as reasons for preferring to stay indoors. About seven per cent of people in a 2018 poll reported they “didn’t know what to do” when they were in nature. 

Looking at students specifically, a study at the University of Helsinki found that close to one third of participants did not “enough time, motivation or energy to visit green spaces,” while a study conducted in China found that more than 35 per cent of school-aged children spent less than an hour outdoors per day.

Ontario Parks offers a solution to that problem. There are over 330 provincial parks in Ontario, and 100 have camping availability. There are also roofed accommodations such as yurts and cabins, as well as day-use areas. Common activities include hiking, birdwatching, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, and mountain-biking. Reservations can be made online and more information on Ontario Parks and the Healthy Parks Healthy People campaign can be found here.

Camping isn’t the only way to reap the cognitive benefits of nature. Walking, cycling, and jogging are some other ways to engage with the environment the next time you’re feeling down and in need of something to lift your spirits.

About the Author

By Hale Mahon

Health Editor

Hale is a third year student in Public Administration with a Minor in Psychology. He loves politics and sits on a few boards and committees at York, including the Student Centre Board of Directors, the Student Council for LA&PS, and the university’s academic senate. As health editor, he wants to see how medical and scientific research can inform political and organizational decisions, and believes that well-communicated science can improve outcomes for everyone. Outside of work, he enjoys cooking, traveling, hiking, camping, photography, and watching 90’s sitcoms.


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