Earth Day 2011: What Green Can Do for You

While you may read lots of Earth Day posts this spring that talk about about ways you can help the Earth, we’d like to remind you about the ways that enjoying the Earth can help you.

Most of us know that a walk in a garden or a hike in the woods makes us feel better. Until recently, however, there has been little scientific evidence for the psychological benefits of enjoying nature. But recent studies that have shown that the calming effect of being in nature can reduce stress and blood pressure, and even cholesterol levels.

photo by M.J. Rhodes

While exercise of all kinds is important for good health, studies have shown that a walk outside in nature (as opposed to a walk in a mall) decreases levels of depression; people said they felt less tense and over 90 percent reported increased self-esteem after walking outside. “Green exercise” is beginning to be considered a clinically valid treatment option for people experiencing mental distress.

Another study by psychologists at Essex University, in the United Kingdom, has shown that just a small dose of nature every day, or several times a week, can definitely improve people’s self-esteem, lift their mood, and reduce mental health stresses. Even five minutes of “green exercise” produced measurable results in the study’s participants.

What Green Can Do for Kids

Dr. Frances Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has done numerous studies on the effects of nature on kids. In one study involving parents of children diagnosed with ADHD, Dr. Kuo found a significant relationship between the parents’ ratings of their children’s symptoms, and the play setting — in a green play environment, the children were able to function better.

Journalist Richard Louv believes that children today are suffering from “nature deficit disorder.” His book Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder sparked a national debate and led to a movement to reconnect kids and nature.  He argues that today’s kids are suffering both physically and emotionally because they don’t spend enough time outside.

photo coutesy of mariposachamber.org

Sounds of Green

Recently my family and I have escaped from the city for some spring walks in public gardens, in the woods, and in a swamp or two. What we enjoyed most was the absence of human-made sounds—cars, pneumatic drills, loud music, TV—and the presence of natural sounds:  leaves rustling, geese honking, crows cawing. I even heard spring peepers and a wood frog. After a long and cold winter, when all of us in the northeast suffered from cabin fever, it calmed and refreshed us—definitely what the doctor ordered.

photo by M.J. Rhodes

As Dr. Mardie Townsend, an associate professor in the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, has said, “Having access to appealing natural environments encourages physical activity, which has obvious benefits. We gain life by looking at life.”

Further reading:

Walking in the Park Contributes to Happiness by Sue Cartledge

Mental Health Benefits from Nature by Sue Cartledge

Children and Nature Network