There’s nothing like that feeling of satisfaction after a bushwalk or an afternoon at the park. But what is it about nature that makes us feel so restored?

In the last ten years, numerous studies from all corners of the globe have highlighted the various ways that nature can improve overall health. From mental wellbeing to lower incidence of diseases including depression, diabetes and asthma, nature has a number of redeeming qualities.

While researchers are still a way off defining exactly what it is about nature that makes us feel better and live longer, there’s now an overwhelming amount of evidence showing that one of the best ways to take care of your wellbeing is to spend more time outdoors.

This is not to suggest that you should pack up and leave the city. One international study released last year showed that people living in streets with more trees experienced higher levels of heart and metabolic health. To benefit from nature, we simply need some presence of green space in our daily lives – whether it be a green wall, a nearby park or your own garden.

Exposure to plants, fresh air and natural light helps to lower stress levels, and it is this reduction in stress that is thought to be the reason why nature is so good for us. Here are the key health and wellbeing benefits of spending more time among the natural world.

Improved health

“Exposure to the natural world – including nearby nature in cities – helps improve human health, wellbeing and intellectual capacity.” – Richard Louv

Historically, nature was a mystical divine force that inspired and marvelled mankind. As Aristotle said, "In all things of nature there is something of the marvellous."

Where philosophers romanticised nature’s healing qualities for centuries, science is now shedding more light on nature’s life force. Given the rising incidence of chronic disease and conditions such as depression and anxiety, there is more interest than ever in how the natural world can improve our health.

As more studies show the links between our health and exposure to nature, there’s now also growing interest in greening our cities. A 2009 Dutch study, for example, found that those who live less than 1km from green space had lower incidence of 15 diseases including depression, heart disease, diabetes and asthma.

Why is this case? It is most likely due to stress and brain activity. Being exposed to natural settings rather than busy urban streetscapes lowers stress, and stress can have all sorts of health consequences due to the strain it places on our bodies. When we are at ease, blood pressure and the heart rate drops, and regularly escaping stressful situations can have positive long-term health effects.  

Related Reading: Why we need greener cities

Increased mental satisfaction

“73% of Australians see their garden as a sanctuary for their mental wellbeing.” – 202020 Vision

As well as reducing the incidence of stress-related disease, nature is also good for our mental wellbeing. For all the appeal and convenience of urban living, we are hard-wired to appreciate the natural world, and that’s why your favourite holiday spot probably has views of the beach, rainforest or countryside.

Exposure to nature gives us a type of mental stimulation that can’t be found elsewhere in society – it’s the ultimate form of rejuvenation and restoration. Another study in England tracked 10,000 city residents over an 18-year period. The results showed that those who lived closer to green spaces encountered less mental distress.

The correlation between happiness and green space can also be found in the workplace. Plants in built environments such as streetscapes, shopping centres and offices have been shown to lower stress and anxiety, which improves productivity and overall happiness of the people who work in these settings.

Then there’s the connection between mind and body. Not only do people who spend more time in green spaces experience less anxiety, stress and depression, they also heal faster. In hospitals, patients who have views of trees typically recover faster and have less need for pain medication.

Related reading: Biophilic design at work: why we need greener office spaces

Greater memory retention and creativity

“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction” – E.O. Wilson

Are you dependent on your to-do list and calendar reminders? Or perhaps you are feeling creatively uninspired?

As our lives become busier and over stimulated by technology, we’re increasingly looking for ways to preserve our vital cognitive functions. One popular technique is mindfulness – a self-awareness practice with origins in Buddhist meditation. Mindfulness helps you to become aware of your surroundings and practicing it in the presence of nature can have amazing results.

Looking at the positive effects nature has on the brain, researchers at the University of Michigan found that after just one hour interacting with nature, memory performance and attention spans increased by 20%. This in turn helps to boost creativity. 

By simply taking a walk in the park, spending time in the garden or placing pot plants around your home, you can give your mind a reprieve from external stimuli. These acts provide your mind with space to reflect, contemplate and clear the pathways important for memory, creativity and mental restoration.

Related reading: Gardening and mindfulness