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Spending time in a green environment has been shown to reduce both blood pressure and stress hormones, which is good news for heart health.1 One theory is that trees, particularly pine trees, release phytoncides, which when breathed in have a similar effect to aromatherapy on the body. So next time you're outdoors, get up close to a tree and take a deep breath - in Japan and South Korea, it's known as forest bathing or shinrin-yoku.
Regular exposure to daylight tops up levels of the 'sunshine vitamin', vitamin D, made by the body when the skin is exposed to UV light. Vitamin D is essential to support many aspects of your health, from bones to muscles to immunity.2 Getting outdoors in daylight, ideally in the middle of the day, is the best way to keep levels topped up, but remember to be careful when exposing yourself to sunlight.
Also, walking in a woodland environment boosts the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, a key part of the immune system, according to Japanese research.3
Any exercise is good exercise, but do it with a view of somewhere green and you turbocharge the benefits. In one study, people exercising on a treadmill were shown images of either nature or urban scenes.4 Those shown the nature scenes had lower blood pressure 10 minutes after the exercise than those shown pictures of urban scenes. Exercise itself will lower blood pressure afterwards, but it seems you get an extra benefit from physical activity with a view!
Walking outdoors has an effect on the brain similar to mindfulness. When you're concentrating on navigating a route, the motor cortex kicks in to control muscle movements, distracting the thinking part of the brain, which can be overactive. This can bring an instant boost to mood. Some experts believe that too much time in an urban environment puts us at risk of Nature Deficit Disorder, a similar condition to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which can cause low energy levels and lack of concentration.
A morning walk improved the sleep quality of a group of older adults with insomnia, according to a small study.5 One theory is that morning light keeps the body clock in sync, by stopping the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, and switching on 'awake' hormones like cortisol. But indoor light isn't enough, so when you don't go out, you risk your body clock getting out of sync, making it harder to sleep later on. If you can't get out, try having breakfast by a window.
Walking in a large shopping centre left 50 per cent of people feeling 'more tense', according to one study, but 71 per cent who walked for the same length of time in a country park reported feeling less stressed afterwards. According to psycho-physiological stress recovery theory (SRT), spending time in a green environment instantly creates a shift towards a more positive emotional state, reducing negative thoughts and activating the parasympathetic, or 'rest and relax' branch of the nervous system.6 And lower stress means better health – out-of-control stress levels have been linked to digestion problems, skin conditions and heart disease.
According to a study by the University of Essex, seventy one per cent of participants said they felt less fatigued, and 53 per cent said they felt 'more vigorous' after a green walk, even though they had been exercising for 30 minutes. But there's one caveat - make sure you feel safe. If you don't feel comfortable where you're walking, it might cancel out the benefits.
If health issues stop you getting outdoors, get a micro-dose of ecotherapy by bringing the outside in. Having houseplants in the room has been shown to reduce mental fatigue,7 and according to University of Wales research, brings a much-needed wellbeing boost in those recovering from a health setback.8 This backs up a now famous study from the 1970s that showed that hospital patients with a view of something green recover better from surgery.9
Always follow the Government's guidelines on self-isolation and social distancing – see gov.uk/coronavirus for more information and the latest updates.
Sally is a trained psychotherapist and health and lifestyle writer, working for national newspapers and magazines.
Find out more about Sally Brown.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.