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The natural way - why spending time outside feels so good


Today, more than ever before in human history, we are dramatically disconnected from the natural world. In the words of Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, “we’ve pivoted further away from nature than any generation before us.”


And this disconnection has a profound impact on us; it’s important to understand how our lives have radically shifted indoors in modern times, and what this change means for our nervous systems. After all, our physical bodies are playing catch-up with our modern world, still operating in the same ways as when we lived entirely outside, a time when we were more at-one with nature and the cycles of the planet.


The lack of time spent outside in modern life was explored in a recent study in the UK - ‘The People & Nature Survey’ - and it was found that in January 2022, 27% of adults had not spent any time in green and natural spaces for the previous 14 days. That’s an entire 2 weeks of time spent solely inside or in man-made environments.


Recently, the term ‘stress epidemic’ has been used to describe modern times, with more and more people seeking medical care for stress, anxiety and depression. Some argue there is a strong correlation between spending less time outside and increased levels of stress, anxiety and other related health issues. After all, “we don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other” (The Nature Fix).


Is rekindling our relationship with the natural world one answer to this epidemic of stress? In our view, it certainly is - at The Studio, we are firm believers in the power of nature to heal, and we look to nature on a daily basis to soothe, relax, and ease tension. And this sentiment is shared by others; according to scientists, spending time outside brings about a physiological response of relaxation in us - a study found that leisurely forest walks, compared to urban walks in man-made environments, delivered a 12% decrease in cortisol levels and a 1.4% decrease in blood pressure.

But the question remains - how does the natural world have this positive impact on us?


One explanation is that the powerful compounds phytoncides, or the terpenes, aromatic and essential oils produced by plants - impact the stress-response within our bodies. Research has found that inhalation of phytoncides under stressful environments restrains the activation of the fight/flight stress response (sympathetic nervous system), reducing stress levels. And as Emma Mitchell, author of The Wild Remedy, highlights, “the fresh ‘green’ smell of a hedgerow in May is a combination of phytoncides from many different plants. We inhale them without realizing it when we spend time in a wild place.”

Another way nature positively impacts our health is by increasing immunity. Japanese studies of forest bathing, or ‘Shinrin-yoku’ - a practice widely prescribed in Japan for a variety of health issues - have found that spending time outside in nature increases levels of natural killer immune cells, or NK cells, by up to 40%. These NK cells protect us from disease, sending self-destruct messages to tumors and virus-infected cells - such a dramatic increase after time spent in nature provides a strong case for it’s healing powers (which is particularly relevant at the current time, as we transition out of recent pandemics).


With increased time spent indoors and more screen-time present in our lives than ever before, we are exposing ourselves to less and less natural sunlight. This seemingly small factor has a big impact on our overall health.


Our bodies make vitamin D, an essential vitamin which impacts multiple functions in the body, from cholesterol when we are exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D is unlike other vitamins as it functions more like a hormone, and every cell in the body has a receptor for it. Vitamin D is essential for our overall physical health, impacting everything from immunity, to the normal functioning of the nervous system, and the absorption of other minerals and vitamins. It also directly affects our mental health, with studies finding that a deficiency in vitamin D is linked with depression and decreased mood - those with low vitamin D levels were at a higher risk of developing depression.

Exposure to natural light is also important for our circadian rhythms, or biological body clock. The daily change of sunlight governs rhythmic changes in behaviour and regulates various physiological processes throughout our bodies. Perhaps the most obvious way our internal body clocks impact our health is by initiating our sleep response, where the drop in natural light levels signals that we need to rest and relax. Our circadian rhythms also affect a wide range of less easily observed internal processes vital for our overall health and wellbeing, such as regulating body temperature, digestion and energy metabolism.


Studies have found that reduced exposure to sunlight and the widespread use of electrical lighting has altered our circadian physiology leading to a major change in the timing and quality of our sleep and wakefulness. We are no longer in tune with the rising and setting of the sun, and our internal systems which evolved over millions of years alongside this natural cycle of day and night/light and dark, are now disrupted and confused.

With all of this in mind, it’s really quite simple - spending time outside is hugely beneficial for our health and wellbeing, and we all should be aiming to get outside, connect with nature, and disconnect from our screens on a daily basis. We can all build this healthy habit into our daily lives - just a 10 minute walk outside in greenery does wonders for us at The Studio when we need to reconnect back to ourselves, ground into the present moment, and release the stress and tensions of the day.


Surrounded by the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside, The Studio is a space dedicated to rekindling our connection with nature, and in turn ourselves, leading to increased health, happiness, and love for life.


Reboot Camp is our new outdoor evening workout (every Mondays/Tuesdays/Thursdays at 6:30pm). Hidden amongst the trees and fields outside The Studio, you will push your cardio, strength, agility, flexibility and power. Each session is designed to help you unwind from your day, de-stress and connect back in with your mind, body and the great outdoors! Join us, rain or shine.



References:


The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and more Creative by Florence Williams



The Stress Epidemic by Claudia Newbegin, 2014 (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1755738014558467)


‘How nature mends us: an extract from The Wild Remedy by Emma Mitchell’ - https://www.discoverwildlife.com/people/how-nature-mends-us/



Phytoncide - Its Properties and Applications in Practical Use by M. Nomura, 2011 - https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/321956

‘COVID-19 and Vitamin D: the science behind the hype’ by Lara Spiller, 2020 - https://uk.thenueco.com/blogs/journal/covid-19-vitamin-d-the-science-behind-the-hype?_pos=3&_sid=5caaf85de&_ss=r

Overview of Circadian Rhythms by Martha Vitaterna et al, 2001 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6707128/


Sleep, Circadian Rhythms and Athletic Performance by Eirunn Thun et al, 2015 - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1087079214001233


Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle by Kenneth Wright Jr. et al, 2013 - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982213007641










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