BORN TO BE WILD
THE GREAT OUTDOORS AWAITS
“Stop being such a couch potato and go outside!” is how we would say it. Autumn Sartain, Nature Guru, puts it far more diplomatically. On page 7, she gives so many reasons to get outdoors that you’ll be drop-kicking your TV into the back yard.
Modern living can seem a bit odd sometimes. Lots of us take a car to work, spend our day inside, drive home, then unwind in front of a TV. But Nature Guru, Autumn Sartain, tells us that by staying indoors we are missing out. Let her reveal how nature can change you for good… Human beings – you and I – come from a long line of ancestors who bred, survived and flourished on this planet, Earth. It’s a pretty obvious thing to say, but just think about it for a minute: for over two million years, humans have been influenced by the plants, animals and surroundings of this world. Those two million years have shaped us to become what we are today. That’s a long time – and I bet you can’t imagine the number of people that represents. I know I can’t. Being so utterly shaped by the natural world, it’s interesting to me that so many of us now spend so little time outside. According to a 2010 Report on American Consumers published by the University of California, San Diego, Americans spend an average of 12 hours a day absorbing information, most of which is from electronic sources such as television and the Internet, but also texting, listening to music and playing games. We are now spending 25% less time pursuing nature-based recreations such as camping and visiting national parks than we did in 1987. It’s our increasing preoccupation with entertainment media that is a primary cause for this change. Fear is also one of the main factors making parents happier if their children play indoors. But whether it’s entertainment or fear (or both), the results aren’t pretty: a study of British schoolchildren showed they were much better at identifying Pokémon characters than common animals like rabbits and beetles. It is only now that science is finally catching up with what we all know on some gut level – that being outside is good for us. What is perhaps unexpected from this new wave of research is how being in nature influences our physical bodies and our brains. For example, showing people nature scenes, as opposed to city scenes, makes them more giving to others and less concerned with selfish goals. Road rage can be reduced by the amount of vegetation visible along a highway. Outdoor classrooms improve mathematics and science scores. Views of vegetation have also been linked to lower anger levels, less impulsive behavior, and shorter hospital stays.
Impressively, just a twenty-minute walk in nature improves attention scores for children diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder). Remarkably, one research study found that behavioural improvements were comparable with what top-selling ADHD drugs claim to provide.
Shining a light on happiness
As you may or may not know, serotonin is a chemical in our brains that helps us feel happy (with drugs such as Prozac artificially elevating the levels of this chemical our bodies release). In 2002, researchers in Australia discovered that serotonin production is directly related to the amount of sunlight in a day. The blue light of the sky is our particular favourite: exposure to this hue (with a wavelength of about 470 nm) helps to relieve depression and the ‘winter blues’ ( seasonal affective disorder). Winter brings the lowest level of this happy blue light and so it’s even more important to spend time outdoors during those short days. If you happen to live at latitudes where you literally get no light in the winter, or not enough, then you are at a higher risk of depression. Thankfully, therapeutic light ‘boxes’ can help: light therapy has been shown to reduce depression, anxiety and even eating disorders. Light is particularly important in the morning, so consider celebrating the morning by going outside – the sunlight should help you think, feel more alert and happy, lower your anxiety and even help your sleep (later on, of course). The same principles can apply even when you can’t get outside: one set of researchers craftily changed the lights on two different floors in an office building and assessed how the office workers felt. For four weeks, one floor had only white light, and the other had blue-enriched white light. The results were pretty amazing. With the blue-enriched light, employees were in a better mood, performed better at their jobs, felt more alert, and were less irritable and tired than the other group. Natural light is becoming increasingly important as we all are spending more and more time indoors. One problem with looking at our computers all day, instead of being outside, is that our body can become confused about when to be alert and when to sleep. We each have a circadian rhythm – an internal body clock – that controls when we wake and when we sleep. A hormone called melatonin becomes active when it’s dark, getting our body and mind ready for sleep. If we spend our day in office cubicles then we deprive ourselves of the benefits of natural light. And then, at night, when we fill our eyes with light from super-bright TV screens, our melatonin is suppressed – really messing with our sleep. But more than this, a disturbed sleep-wake cycle can contribute to depression, immune problems, obesity, attention deficit disorder and more.
Making sense of the scents
When you walk into a forest, you have to admit that it smells nice. Sometimes you probably even take a deep breath, smile, and say “ahhh!” (That can’t just be me, right?) Appreciating a pleasant smell is a nice little side effect of being outdoors, but there’s a lot more to scents than just that. It turns out that our noses are portals to our brains (even though they may seem so useless compared to, say, a dog’s nose). Tiny airborne substances, or vapors, get into our nostrils, enter our brains and then circulate throughout our body. You don’t even have to be able to ‘smell’ them in the traditional sense. Plants give off tiny plant aromatic particles called ‘phytoncides’ that can have varying effects, depending on which ones you come into contact with. Trees, for example, give off phytoncides that can promote immune function, lower stress hormones and induce relaxation. What’s even more amazing is that the positive effects don’t wear off right away. One published study demonstrated that after a weekend walking in the woods, the changes are still measurable a month later. And the benefits aren’t limited to trees. While aromatherapists have been criticised for overstating their claims, there is nevertheless evidence to show that other plant oil vapors can influence body and mind – even increasing our happy friend, serotonin. Rosemary may well serve as an aid to memory, while lavender has the opposite effect on memory and attention but is great for relaxation. Experiments have also shown that peppermint boosts physical and mental performance in certain situations and has been shown to lower anxiety for those driving for extended periods of time. Plants not only give off soothing vapors, they also help clean up the air we breathe at work and home. The analysis of indoor air has shown some scary things: office air frequently contains pollutants at levels beyond what experts deem healthy. Such airborne contaminants include sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide and so-called ‘ volatile organic compounds’. Our computers are a major source of indoor air pollution, giving off some volatile compounds, some of which have been shown experimentally to impair our thinking ability and make us more likely to make mistakes. But don’t despair! Researchers from the University of Technology, Sydney have discovered what they call a “portable, flexible, attractive, low-cost technology”. Or potted plants to you and me. Office plants can remove up to 75% or more of indoor volatile organic compound loads. So, if you spend a lot of your time inside, consider bringing some nature in with you. They’ll make even your apartment or office look nice too.
Take a break from thinking so hard!
Crunching numbers all day, or doing some other task that requires long hours of forced, focused attention, can cause our minds to get tired. Researchers call this ‘cognitive fatigue’; it can cause us to make more errors and have trouble filtering through irrelevant information, leading us to be more distracted. Long periods of ‘cognitive fatigue’ may eventually contribute to burn-out, depression, and anxiety. And this is where Nature can help (again). In 2011, researchers in South Korea tested university students’ mental abilities before and after a walk, either through a lush park or through a city. They found that by taking a 50-minute walk through a tree-lined park, the students performed better on subsequent tests
when compared to the city-walkers. Unforced attention on nature, and the fascination that comes with looking at the natural world, was enough to refresh the tired mind. Not surprisingly then, getting out and walking in a forest setting is also great for us. The Forest Agency of Japan began promoting an initiative in 1982 called Shinrin-Yoku, or ‘forest bathing’. This program is meant to help stressed-out city people (and anyone else interested) soak up the effects of nature by getting them to spend time in the forest. Since it started, psychological and physiological studies on over 1,000 adults have shown the benefits: lower levels of stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rate, depression and anger. They also found improved sleep and a greater feeling of liveliness.
The great outdoors awaits
There are endless variations of outdoor adventuring, from gardening to scaling mountains to walking in your local park. If you are like Matt Linsdell, our Fitness Guru, and love to exercise, you’ll be happy to know that simply running outdoors reduces anger, fatigue, and anxious thoughts more than running on a treadmill. Better than that, outdoor exercise has been shown to increase the number of positive thoughts a person has. Whichever route of outdoor exploration you choose, it appears conclusive that nature is beneficial to health and happiness. So breathe in the air, bring some nature inside, and of course, romp through the wilds and get some dirt under those fingernails.
Find out more:
The book Your Brain on Nature by Drs. Eva Selhub and Alan Logan explores these issues in greater detail.
Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park. A potential natural treatment for attentiondeficit/hyperactivity disorder: Evidence from a national study. Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain. Narrow-band blue-light treatment of seasonal affective disorder in adults and the influence of additional nonseasonal symptoms. Blue-enriched white light in the workplace improves self-reported lateness, performance and sleep quality. Effect of forest environments on human natural killer (NK) activity. Smelling lavender and rosemary increases free radical scavenging activity and decreases cortisol level in saliva. Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. The effects of running, environment, and attentional focus on athletes’ catecholamine and cortisol levels. Improved performance on clerical tasks associated with administration of peppermint odor. Enhancing athletic performance through the administration of peppermint odor. The influence of interaction with forest on cognitive function. Use of living pot-plants to cleanse indoor air. Sixth International Conference on Indoor Air.
AUTUMN SARTAIN• NATURE GURU
Autumn Sartain’s favorite thing is spending time in nature, which is why she chose to be a wildlife biologist. For the past ten years she has wrestled sea turtles in the tropics, chased song birds in the mountains, sorted through Antarctic seafloor samples and dealt with all that silly business of gaining a postgraduate qualification in Biology. You can see some of her writing at autumnsartain.com.