Rebound: The power of the great outdoors and improved mental health

Posted at 8:08 AM, Jan 18, 2021

GRAND RAPIDS — We all know the past year has tested our mental health in new ways and now in the middle of winter, it can become even more a challenge. But the power of the great outdoors could be more beneficial than you realize. Studies show that just five minutes of outdoor exposure can lead to improved mental health.

“We're finding that spending time in nature actually boosts our immune system by strengthening our levels and numbers of natural killer cells. And that is so important right now, because we know that our body needs to have a strong immune system,” says Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, M.D who is an OB-GYN and Integrative Medicine physician.

“A number of studies are finding that there's something magical about the 20 minute mark, and that 20 minutes of time in nature at doing the activity of your choice can again reduce salivary amylase and cortisol levels, these stress hormones. Another one found that spending time in nature reduced rumination, which is that concept of just repeating thoughts in your mind that you can't stop, this cycle of stressful thoughts, and that rumination is associated with anxiety and depression,” she said.

This is also something that can be accomplished in the middle of winter. Studies have show that people are able to derive health benefits in fairly unlikely ways.

“It might be sitting on your porch, it might be looking out your window, and being able to take some time to just slowly go through the senses. And just notice what you're seeing, what you're hearing, what you're feeling in a tactile way. This can even be done with an indoor potted plant, if you can believe that. And just taking the time, we talk in forest bathing about the concept of a sit spot, which is spending 20 minutes with no agenda, doing nothing other than just seeing what you see, hearing what you hear, noticing what you notice about nature around you and it can be done really anywhere.”

This is something that can be very beneficial for children too, especially during these times. Holistic Child Psychologist, Dr. Nicole Beurkens says it improves focus, attention, learning, anxiety and mood.

“Just a five minute reset of saying to our kids during a hectic day of virtual learning, or their attentions not so good, or they're just in an irritable mood, go outside, even in the cold. Even just being outdoors in that space for five minutes can be a great shift. Then when we come back inside, our kids come back in and can get back into what they were doing and just have their brain and their body be in a better place to do that. So it doesn't have to be a long drawn out thing, we think oh, you know, this is going to be a hassle but it can be quick, it can be easy.”

Plus, it’s free and there is a lot of it.

“If I were to give just a recommendation, a prescription for time spent in nature, which I do prescribe to all of my patients, it would be to come up with something that you enjoy doing for even small, small increments of time and treat it as a prescription. It might be that you decide, what it is your your prescription, your medicine and how often you do it on a regular basis." said Dr. Hackenmiller.

Dr. Beurkens and Dr. Hackenmiller have a podcast if you want to learn more about forest bathing, you can find that here.

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