There’s nothing quite like nature. It’s an elixir of life. Few things can change your mood almost instantly like the beauty of a sunset, a snow-capped mountain, a sparkling turquoise sea or the quieting comfort of the forest. You exhale, let go of the day’s worries, relax and breathe more slowly.
You know how great you feel after a day at the beach, a vigorous hike, a horseback ride or a stroll in the park? Such is the power of nature. It’s healing. Even if you’re a skeptic, the science leaves little room for argument. Research shows that the great outdoors is good for mind, body and spirit. And it turns out that even small doses of Mother Nature reap big benefits.
So, go ahead and treat yourself to that vacation where you get to explore the wild—you’ve earned it! But remember that daily doses of nature can do you just as much good.
Physical and Psychological Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
Ming Kuo, PhD, is a scientist who studies how green space supports healthy human functioning. Her research supports the notion that nature is like a vitamin—vitamin N, if you will—because it protects against ills like depression, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Even a three-day weekend in nature can boosts your natural killer cells (white blood cells that seek out and destroy cancer cells) by up to 50%. And this effect is cumulative; Kuo found that 30 days after the trip, there was still an increase in those cancer-killing cells. That three-day weekend in nature “is not just a treat, but an investment in your future,” she told the audience of her TedX Talk.
Kuo shared the good news that even if you’re not able to get away, you can still get a nature fix. She said that just five minutes of looking at pictures of nature and smelling roses reduces the stress hormone cortisol.
Multiple studies have also drawn the conclusion that exposure to nature can improve attention, lower stress, enhance mood, increase empathy and cooperation and reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders.
The soothing sounds of nature may be restorative, too. Think about how relaxing the sound of a babbling brook or lapping waves can be. One study found that people who listened to nature sounds like crickets chirping or waves crashing performed better on tough cognitive tests than those who listened to city sounds like traffic or a bustling restaurant.
Truth is, people and wildlife need each other. In another recent study, researchers found that only 33% of mammal species responded negatively to humans—meaning they were less likely to occur in places with higher human disturbance and were less active when present—while 58% of species were positively associated with human disturbance.
Finding My Center in Nature
I, for one, need no convincing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I left New York and began working remotely from rural Jamaica. With the ocean and lush greenery everywhere, including my backyard, there was a transformation. I was so much calmer, my head clearer. Within the first year, I went from taking four medications to two, and the dosage for my remaining blood pressure pill was reduced by more than half. The hikes, scenic drives to beaches, sitting by the river, splashing in waterfalls—it’s worked wonders.
Then there have been trips to places like Elsa’s Kopje Meru set in Mughwango Hill in Kenya. If I live to be 100, I’ll never forget the days spent there on safari, nestled in nature in a cottage built around rocks and being endlessly mesmerized by elephants, lions, hippo, giraffe, zebras and the delightful dik-diks. The thrill of watching them in their world, moving in tandem, reduced me to a giggly five-year-old.
Another special place on the planet is Sedona, Arizona. I was facing challenges during the time of my visit. The red rocks and vortexes (energy fields) spoke to my soul. The quiet sorted out the confusion in my head. My thoughts stopped racing, and I got clarity. I left town at peace.
How to Get Your “Recommended Daily Dose” of Nature
There’s something to be said for taking a trip where nature is the star attraction. A polar bear tour on the edge of Hudson Bay in Churchill, Canada; an African safari; or a sojourn to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Alaska is going to be an adventure you’ll never forget.
But you don’t need to pack a bag to take advantage of all nature has to offer. Explore the parks in your neighborhood and jog or walk amid the greenery. Remember Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees.” For sure, there is something about a “tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray. A tree that may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair, upon whose bosom snow has lain, who intimately lives with rain.” Spend time among the trees and expect the unexpected. It’s no wonder the practice of forest bathing, an intentional act of being calm and relaxed within the forest, is gaining popularity.
Don’t dismiss walking. It’s impressive that a daily walk in nature can reduce the risk of stroke. You’ll also reap big benefits from activities like biking, gardening and even simply sitting on a bench by a lake. Don’t laugh, but even sitting for five minutes on the front porch helps!
Set a goal of spending at least two hours a week in nature. A study found that people who spent at least that much time outside were significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological well-being than those who didn’t visit nature at all during an average week.
Fishing, golfing, kayaking, ziplining, snorkeling, rafting, birdwatching, snowshoeing, snowboarding and skiing will all up your fitness and happiness meter.
Although I enjoy any chance to get outside to enjoy nature, there are also indoor opportunities to get your vitamin N. Take, for example, our Daily Dose of Nature webinars. Each weekday, we invite our Nat Hab Expedition Leaders, along with other experts, including our partners at World Wildlife Fund, to present on topics ranging from the world’s weirdest plants to a virtual adventure cruise to the world’s last great wilderness, Antarctica, where we sail among seals, whales, penguins and monolithic icebergs.
Need more ideas for getting your regular nature fix? Tending to an indoor herb garden and watering the plants in your house counts, as does watching nature documentaries. Deck out your home with framed photos and paintings that showcase nature. For a reality show of a natural sort, go for wildlife webcams like the National Park Service’s.
How do you get your vitamin N?