Imagine a world without any open outdoor green spaces: no parks, lakes or hiking trails in sight. Giving up the vibrant colors of nature for a very dull environment happens as we trade natural settings for more development. We know the environmental benefits of more trees, plants and a healthy watershed, but what about the health benefits of nature? What about the effects spending time in local open spaces on our mental and physical health? When immersion in nature is not part of our everyday routine, do we suffer from what author Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder?” A growing body of research shows that getting outside in natural settings has healing powers to support the immune system, relieve stress, and lower depression.
While attending the Bay Area Open Space Conference, I was inspired listening to Sierra Club Outdoors’ director Stacy Bare speak about the life-saving powers of exploring the wilderness. Bare spoke about his work with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and how climbing majestic mountains and kayaking in remote seas helped these war heroes tremendously.
In today’s society, we visit the doctor when we feel sick, looking for advice and treatment. During his talk, Bare asked the audience, what if the doctor, in addition to medication, prescribed time out in nature and outdoor activities? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC,) only 25% of American adults partake in the recommended levels of physical activity. When people have access to more parks, they take advantage of the open space and lead less sedentary lifestyles. With more green spaces available, biking and walking is more accessible, and dependence on driving is lessened.
Parks can also be considered “outdoor classrooms” as play helps children develop muscle strength, coordination, language, and cognitive skills. Playing outside with other children helps build skills in communication and cooperation, creativity and imaginative play. Playing in nature helps children concentrate on schoolwork and improves mood and behavior.
Outdoor spaces produce stronger social ties in communities. Parks offer a place to congregate with neighbors, friends, and family, to relax and enjoy nature. Community gardens are another outdoor space to be enjoyed by people of all ages with many health benefits. For residents in housing projects, studies have shown that a more natural setting with more vegetation increases residents’ feelings of safety, strengthens social ties, and decreases stress.
Whether you’re dealing with stress or wanting to build healthier habits, go outside and use nature as your therapy! Need some ideas on where to go? Take a look at this article to learn about some local open spaces!