The healing power of nature

A loop track at Orokonui Ecosanctuary. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
A loop track at Orokonui Ecosanctuary. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
The busier we get, the more important it is to make time for nature, writes life coach Jan Aitken. 

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

Last week I was fortunate to spend two nights in a backcountry hut on The Snow Farm in the Cardrona Valley, Wanaka. There were 15 of us, workmates and friends. We had a couple of days cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing, interspersed with a lot of falling over while muttering the occasional expletive! There was no electricity, very little cell coverage and no internet! We talked lots, laughed lots, played cards, took turns at doing the chores, compared bruises and took tons of photos in one of the most amazing landscapes I've ever been in. It was every bit as good as being in the magnificent Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

It was one of the most physically exhausting things I've done and also the most mentally relaxing and soul-affirming experience I've had in a long time.

It reminded me how important it is to get out into nature, and I haven't really done that for an extended period of time; life's been busy. It made me think of a Zen saying: "You should sit in nature for 20 minutes a day, unless you're busy - then you should sit for an hour".

The trip prompted me to check out some articles I'd saved on the healing power of Mother Nature for our general health and mental wellbeing.

Like many, I spend most of my working week indoors and then running around and playing catch-up on chores during the weekend. I'd never stopped to think about why I enjoy being in the garden, love walking along the beach and really enjoy getting a day or two in the mountains, especially in the winter. There's something restorative about being in the mountains - the air is incredibly fresh, the light bright and clear, and the stars at night are stunning. I know the physical tiredness from outside activity is a good feeling, but on reflection I realised I felt better mentally too, more relaxed and connected with myself.

Our lives are more indoor and sedentary than our predecessors'. Combine that with our burgeoning use of screens and smart phones and it's easy to see that we spend less time outside, we've disconnected from nature and things are a bit out of whack. Balancing it back up with some technology-free, outside time makes a lot of sense.

So, what effect does being out and about in nature have? Research spanning 10+ years is showing that people with a stronger connection to nature experience more life satisfaction in general, regardless of income, occupation and the other usual measures for life satisfaction. Exposure to nature can help elevate mood, lower stress, anxiety and depression levels, boost your immune system, reduce anger, increase self-esteem, improving both mental, emotional and physical health.

We're on the cusp of our traditional outside upbringings becoming more and more unusual - spending leisure time outside is not necessarily the norm anymore. Dr Miles Richardson, head of psychology at the University of Derby, tells us "there is a need to normalise everyday nature as part of a healthy lifestyle".

The real challenge for the future is how we get more people out and about, knowing what we do about the very real benefits of nature. One study even found hospitalised patients with a view of trees and parks got better and went home more quickly than those who got to look out at concrete and brick!

So how can we make it happen? It doesn't need to be a major event; we don't all need to spend weeks tramping the great walks of New Zealand or spend money we don't have on expensive equipment. It can be as simple as a walk in the park, pottering about your garden, a walk along the beach, taking the dog for a run, parking further away from work or the shops and walking a little further, trying out some of the tracks and parks around you, or a visit to the botanic garden. Join a walking or running club to get out and about - and boost your social connection at the same time, a double whammy win.

It can be five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes - it really doesn't matter. We're incredibly lucky in New Zealand to be so close to green spaces, tracks, beaches, skifields, lakes and rivers and it's easy to take it for granted.

Get outside, connect with nature, look around you, feel the breeze on your face.

Try new things, expand your horizons. Figure out what you enjoy and then get out there and do it!

Keep it as simple as you want, it doesn't have to be a major undertaking.

Look for reasons to make it work, rather than why it won't. Avoid the "it's too hard", "I don't have time" trap. Think about making it a priority and put it in your diary. At least one outing a week should be non-negotiable.

Make it fun, meet with a friend and enjoy some good company too - that helps our sense of social connection and boosts our self esteem.

Ditch the screens for a block of time each weekend and give your brain and eyes a break!

Being outside in nature has the power to rebalance the body, mind and soul. Remember that Zen saying: "You should sit in nature for 20 minutes a day, unless you're busy - then you should sit for an hour".

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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