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2 July, 2018 00:00 00 AM

Nurturing a love of nature can have untold health benefits

Peter Hellyer
Nurturing a love of nature can have 
untold health benefits

A few days ago, as I was looking across a particularly verdant landscape, my mind turned to a recent conversation with a friend in Abu Dhabi on the impact of the environment on wellbeing, or, to put it another way, how our surroundings affect the way that we feel. I have been following with interest a series of posts on social media by a British journalist who has been struggling with mental health issues. Rather bravely, in my view, she has been chronicling her ups-and-downs and the way in which her spirits are lifted by swimming in rivers amid the gorgeous landscape of England’s Lake District or by the discovery of a fragile, beautiful rare orchid.

It’s clear that being surrounded by and engaging with natural beauty is of enormous importance to her. On a different level, I recall how my spirits lift when I drive across the border between England to Scotland on my way to a much-loved valley in the Scottish Borders, which I have visited many times over the last few decades. It just feels good, even if it’s raining, which is often the case. The same applies when I wander around a favourite wadi in Fujairah, whether in summer or winter.

It might be the case that I feel a particular affinity with the natural beauty of the countryside, wherever it may be, because I’m a country boy at heart. I spent my childhood in a house surrounded by a large garden, with woods and fields beyond and with a view for miles across a rolling landscape.

That doesn’t mean that I cannot find a similar enjoyment, an identical lifting of the spirit, in an urban environment. It can happen, too, if I am sitting in a well-wooded square in the heart of London or strolling across one of the public parks to be found throughout the city of Abu Dhabi. Even if there’s nothing special to be seen in terms of wildlife – and often there is nothing – the very fact of "communing with nature" has a benefit in itself.

I don’t think I am unusual in this, although I know there are people who find open spaces hold particular challenges for them. Perhaps that’s why, even in the midst of some of the most deprived urban communities in the world, one can see ways in which people seek nature, however that is defined. Tiny plots of land with carefully tended flowers, even a plant in a pot on a balcony or in a cluttered room, or on an office desk, also suggest there’s something of benefit to be obtained with a relationship – however small, however tenuous – with the wider world.

Even in school, there is, I would argue, a benefit to be gained from observing the growth of plants and seeds and in a way which allows children to participate. I am delighted that my own daughter’s school is introducing such a programme at the beginning of the next academic year. It might not offer them perspectives of lofty mountaintops, an archipelago of tiny islands or the babble of a mountain stream but it will, I hope, introduce them to some of the fascinations of the natural world and teach them to observe their surroundings in a different way.

It’s easy for social scientists and for governments to take a view of society and its needs that places a focus on issues such as physical health, employment, security, interpersonal relationships and access to sufficient water and food. These are all, of course, of enormous importance, fundamental elements in the health of any community. We all need that, whether rich, poor or somewhere in-between.

Perhaps, though, there’s a need to pay greater attention to our surroundings and the nature itself found within them. It might be difficult to define, in sociological terms, the impact that the natural world can have upon us, not least because it might vary from individual to individual.

However one seeks to define the concept of happiness – rightly identified as one of the targets to which the United Arab Emirates aspires – I would hope that the intangible benefit gained from the role the natural world can play in our physical environment receives the attention it rightly deserves.

There are so many studies that have been done and that are currently being done that show the health benefits to our bodies and minds by prioritizing more time outside.

What health benefits do you feel you receive after spending time in nature? Let us know in the comments below!

Here are just 10 of the reasons (among so many more!) to spend more time in nature!

Although getting outside doesn’t have to mean exercise. It usually does involve some sort of exercise, even if it’s just a brief walk and it usually means reduced time sitting. Getting just 15-30 minutes of exercise per day has massive benefits for your body and mind. Moving your body decreases your risk of all sorts of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even arthritis

Vitamin D has been shown to have potentially protective effects against a whole range of diseases from cancer to osteoporosis to depression.  It can also help strengthen your immune system and all you need is 10-15 minutes of sunlight per day.

The sounds of being in a forest or by the ocean is soothing and relaxing and numerous studies have found that being in nature can reduce feelings of depression, increase self-esteem and decrease tension. The Japanese actually have a popular practice that that they have called forest bathing, which is just spending time in the forest for relaxation and recreation. Studies in South Korea have found that even just looking at pictures of nature could increase positivity and emotional stability in participants.

Being in a natural setting can increase your quality of sleep and also being in sunlight during the day has been shown to increase the body’s production of melatonin at night. There have been some super interesting studies done on nature’s effect on the immune system. They have shown not only that white blood cells undergo increased production when the body is exposed to sunlight but also that the number of the bodies natural immune cells increases with time spent in nature. These cells fight off infections, disease and even tumors.  For more information this article talks about some of the research that’s going on in Japan.

A study conducted by the University of Michigan showed that after spending time in nature both attention span and memory performance improved by 20%

I know I am happier in nature but it’s been shown that sunlight is a natural mood booster.  Exercising in nature has a particularly good effect on mood and looking at natural scenery activates the part of the brain associated with balance and happiness.

These days we spend so much time in front of a screen. Use getting out into nature as an excuse to reconnect with family and friends and catch up in person.

Researchers in the US and Germany found that nature helped improved creativity. The German study showed that even looking at a green rectangle for a couple of seconds triggered greater creativity that other colors.

Too much time behind a screen can take its toll on your eyesight. You can reverse these effects however by spending time outdoors. It gives your eyes a chance to focus on a large landscape, which reduces near sightedness.

“If we can help people to connect with nature, that’s not just good for them, its great news for nature,” said The Wildlife Trust’s Lucy McRobert. Because, she explains, the more people that care intrinsically for their local environment and value the positive impact it has on their own lives, the more they’ll want to protect it from destruction.

So The Wildlife Trusts would like to see nature high up on the political agenda and viewed in the same way as health, security and education, and for businesses and corporations to make meaningful changes that protect our natural resources. And for us as individuals they want us to care for, cherish and protect our environment and wild places. “We hope that [these] results show how nature isn’t just a nice thing to have – although it has a huge value in itself – it’s fundamentally important for our health, wellbeing and happiness and that ought to be reflected in our education system, in the way we treat the physically or mentally ill, in the way we build infrastructure and houses and in how we access and protect green spaces in cities.



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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