Greater contact with nature helps reduce anxiety, stress and depression, study says
Yuki Hayashi Special to the Star
When Sandeep Niranjan wants to ground himself, he heads for the hills, forest or bluffs.
“I fit outdoor meditation and yoga into my weekend. I feel like I’m far from the city because, in a single moment, just focusing on the sound of a bird or of trees cracking, puts me in the right mind frame, ” says the 18-year-old Forest Hills Collegiate student.
For Niranjan, this outdoor time is a spiritual experience, not least of all because it connects him to his roots.
“My grandfather lived by a tea plantation in Ooty, India, and he used to meditate outdoors too, ” says Niranjan, whose Grade 12 environmental studies class recently visited the Kortright Centre for Conservation, less than an hour north of Toronto, to study climate change.
The class toured the trails and demonstration areas, including a model house exemplifying green design principles, and got their own healthy dosage of the outdoors.
Health benefits from nature
Experts call our nature craving biophilia, and say outdoor time is crucial to human health and quality of life, providing physical, mental and psychological benefits.
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, regular green time can reduce the risk of a heart attack by 50 per cent and the risk of diabetes by 50 per cent.
Studies also show contact with nature reduces anxiety, stress, depression and ADD/ADHD, while improving energy, immunity, Vitamin D production and weight loss (which is tied to boosting health).
In fact, some doctors now prescribe a walk in nature to patients suffering from illnesses including cardiovascular conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and anxiety, says Mike Puddister, deputy CAO and director of watershed transformation with Credit Valley Conservation (CVC).
“Interacting with nature changes our body chemistry, ” says Puddister, noting that conservation areas are as much about protecting human interests as they are about preserving wildlife habitat.
“A walk in the woods reduces stress, and studies have used a number of chemical indicators to measure that, such as reduced cortisol levels, lowered blood pressure and so on. It affects our whole physiological well-being.”
Most GTA residents are a short drive, bike ride or walk from the natural areas that are so crucial to our health. Maintaining that access is crucial, say experts.
“This is the first time ever that over 50 per cent of the world population is living in cities. By 2050, it will be 70 per cent of the population, ” says Vicky McGrath, Humber River Watershed specialist with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). “The more people flock to cities, the more our distributed green space is going to be essential for our well-being.”
With nearby nature, anyone can access a quiet place among the trees or along a shaded stream, without a big disruption to their day.
That access is key, as health-care experts and conservationists urge parents to get their children playing outside. According to ParticipACTION, Canadian kids spend an average of seven hours and 48 minutes per day engaged in screen time. Fewer than 5 per cent get the 60-minutes per day of active physical time recommended by Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Children and Youth.
While screen time has been shown to increase sleep difficulties, anxiety, depression, weight gain and risk of developing attention-deficit disorders, daily physical activity such as outdoor play is associated with improved sleep, academic performance, self-esteem and lowered heart disease and type-2 diabetes risk.
Finding nature close to home
Children find nature play natural, says Burkhard Mausberg, director of Friends of the Greenbelt and father of three teenage girls.
“Find activities you all enjoy. Getting outdoors should not be a guilt-driven exercise, ” he says.
Make it less about: this is going to lower our blood pressure, and more about: this is going to be a crazy-fun time!
“The choices we have in Ontario’s Greenbelt are mind-boggling, ” adds Mausberg, citing early-spring maple syrup and sugarbush festivals (Kortright Centre, Stouffville’s Bruce’s Mill Conservation Area, and Halton region’s Terra Cotta Conservation Area), rock climbing (Burlington’s Mount Nemo), cultural enrichment (Black Creek Pioneer Village), camping at Albion Hills, as well as provincewide learn-to-fish programs as just a few of the family-friendly options.
As outdoor green-activity time becomes a doctor-sanctioned health recommendation, health and conservation organizations are working to improve access to Canadians who would benefit from regular doses of “Vitamin G” and the “green lift” it provides.
Last year, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) partnered with Conservation Ontario and Hike Ontario in a pilot project called Mood Walks, training local mental-health agencies to take older adults aged 50-plus on guided nature walks.
“There are three factors that make programs like this so transformative, ” says Scott Mitchell, director of knowledge transfer with the CMHA. “First, there’s the exercise aspect: we know exercise is good for mental health. The second factor is the time spent in nature: Mood Walks are held on accessible trails – not all are. And the third factor is the social aspect, walking in a group. Some people who struggle with mental-health issues are socially isolated, and Mood Walks provide an opportunity to interact with others.”
As an added bonus, says Mitchell, some Mood Walk groups volunteered on trail-maintenance projects, giving back to their community and boosting their own self-esteem.
Last year, 22 walking groups were started. This year, Mood Walks is focusing on young adults, 16 through 25 – an age group that typically faces long wait times for psychiatric services, often weeks or months. If the well-documented benefits of nature time can “bridge the gap” and help them stay on track, says Mitchell, it will have a profound domino effect on their education, future careers, financial independence and adult lives.
Another potentially life-changing initiative geared at young people is the CVC’s Conservation Youth Corps, a summer volunteer program for high school students, based in the Credit Valley watershed.
Participants plant trees, work on stream restoration projects and manage invasive species, while gaining curriculum-mandated volunteer credits.
“For some young folks, this program is their first experience out of the city, ” says Puddister. “We’ve worked with some who got really turned onto the environment and it’s clear this will shape their future careers.”
Andrew Kett, the manager of education at CVC, says today’s conservation areas are becoming proactive about making health connections.
“We’ve developed a health and wellness program that provides outdoor experiences to community health organizations and we’ve worked with diverse organizations in Mississauga and Brampton, like Extendicare Mississauga, the India Rainbow Community Services of Peel, and the ‘Sauga Stroke Breakers, which is a Mississauga-based therapy program for stroke survivors, ” says Kett.
The ‘Stroke Breakers visit Terra Cotta Conservation Areas’ wheelchair-accessible trails for outdoor programming.
That’s not to say the programs that eased many generations of Canadian kids into becoming outdoor lovers don’t still exist.
Check your local conservation authority websites for programs for all ages.
Or, for unstructured tranquility, just head into the woods.
As Niranjan has found, sometimes all it takes to ground yourself – to nature, to health and to tradition – is a few deep breaths under a tall tree.
“If you take care of the environment, it will take care of you, ” says his classmate Bessie Cassidy, 18, noting Toronto’s many green spaces offer access for health-boosting green time. “We’re a part of nature itself, even if we forget that at times. We need it as much as it needs us.
“Maybe we need it more.”