Spending time in nature can have a profound and positive effect on our health and wellbeing. Indeed, studies examining how our relationship with nature impacts our mental and physical health consistently find that they are inextricably linked. Limit our access to, and interaction with, wildlife and our health suffers; spend more time nurturing our connection to the natural world and we thrive.

A 2019 study of over 20,000 people, led by the University of Exeter medical school, found that spending just two hours a week in nature – whether being active or just sitting and observing – significantly boosts our mental health and life satisfaction. Extrapolate from this and the benefits of wider, regular exposure to the natural world may be life-changing.

“Choosing to spend time outdoors, somewhere green, is certainly my prescription for stressed-out bodies and minds,” says Dr Rangan Chatterjee, GP, author and presenter of Doctor in the House.

“Research has found that time spent in green spaces lowers stress by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It can also reduce symptoms of depression, help increase attention span and focus, boost the immune system, increase our energy levels, lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, and improve sleep.”

This article provides inspiration to go outside and enjoy the natural world, from wildlife gardening to volunteering on citizen science projects or simply birdwatching. Here are three ways you can improve your health by strengthening your connection to nature.

1. Head outside and be active

Ease a busy or anxious mind and bring a fresh perspective by exercising in nature

Breathtaking views, sunlight through a forest canopy, patience rewarded with a rare sighting: all are natural mood-boosters. Numerous studies show us that being active in a natural environment can enhance this mood-lifting effect, whether we are walking, cycling, running or, notably, taking part in nature conservation.

Exercising in nature is particularly beneficial, says Dr Rangan Chatterjee. “If we exercise in nature, rather than in a gym, we tend to exercise for longer. One study found that people who exercise in the outdoors on a regular basis have higher levels of serotonin, a hormone that reduces tiredness and helps keep us in a happier mood.”

Immersive experiences in nature have also been found to have a significant impact on our wellbeing.

I turn to the natural world all the time when I am stressed and, increasingly, when I am not stressed, as a preventive measure. A walk in the park is just part of my near-daily routine now. It puts me in a better mood and it makes my dog happy.
Florence Williams podcaster and author of The Nature Fix (W W Norton & Company, £12.99)

In Norway, a country repeatedly ranked in the top 10 in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, this concept is known as friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv), roughly translated as ‘open-air living’ or ‘free air life’. It describes an attitude rather than a specific activity or exercise and it’s an essential part of the Nordic lifestyle.

The key to friluftsliv is consciously using your time in nature to help you clarify your thoughts, let go of stress and improve your mood. “Friluftsliv can be an amazing view, picking hedgerow fruit, going for a hilltop hike, breathing in the ocean air, but it can also be shovelling snow, digging in the ground, moving stones and the freedom not to think or worry, just ‘be’,” says Norwegian life coach Anne Eriksen.

The freedom to go outside and roam is also closely connected with the idea of friluftsliv, explains Canadian author Oliver Luke Delorie in The Nordic Art Of Friluftsliv.

It’s no coincidence that Norway’s Outdoor Recreation Act permits walking or camping pretty much everywhere as long as locals and wildlife are respected. “This open-air philosophy cannot help but encourage exploration, adventure and a life-long respect for the environment,” he concludes.

A lady walks her dog through a winter forest. © Verity E. Milligan/Getty
A lady walks her dog through a winter forest. © Verity E. Milligan/Getty

Try one of these mood-boosting activities

Get a different perspective on your local area or head further afield and explore

Take a guided walk

Walking is known to improve your cardiovascular health, mood and self-esteem. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that taking group nature walks has a host of mental health benefits, including decreased depression.

Head to the coast

“Water has been found to be a dominant feature of ‘restorative’ landscapes – viewing water creates strong positive reactions that improve our mood and promote recovery from stress and mental fatigue,” writes marine biologist Deborah Cracknell in By the Sea: the Therapeutic Benefits of Being in, on and by the Water. So, head to the ocean!

Camp out

A 2017 study by the University of Colorado Boulder found that sleeping outdoors for a weekend can reset your sleep schedule to line up with natural light cycles, helping you to get to sleep earlier and wake up feeling more refreshed. Sleeping outdoors in nature also improves body and brain function, due to the better quality of oxygen.

Image: Fossil hunters at Lyme Regis © Alphotographic/Getty 

Fossil hunters at Lyme Regis © Alphotographic/Getty

Also related to the idea of roaming and this time among trees is the immersive Japanese practice of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. ‘Bathing’ in the forest atmosphere uses the senses to connect to nature by noticing flora and fauna, sounds, scents and textures and shifting the perspective from the macro to the micro.

Introduced as a national health programme by the Japanese government in the 1980s, shinrin-yoku is the result of scientific studies that showed that two hours of mindful exploration in a forest could lower blood pressure and cortisol levels and improve concentration and memory.

Scientists also found that trees release essential oils called phytoncides, which have an anti-microbial effect on human bodies when inhaled, boosting the immune system by elevating our white blood cell count.

Can’t go down to the woods today? Getting your nature fix can be as simple as taking a lunchtime stroll in your nearest park.

A 2013 British study found that simply walking in green spaces can put the brain into a state of meditation, significantly lowering our levels of cortisol.

Even looking at trees from a window has been shown to have a therapeutic effect.

Sometimes, connecting with the natural world can be about focusing our attention on the nature available to us.

Did you know? A 90-minute walk through a natural environment decreases brain activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is linked to negative thoughts. 

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Image: © Anne Rowe

© Anne Rowe

2. Increase your knowledge

Every season offers spectacular nature events – get your camera, field guide and curious mind at the ready and dive right in

The more we know about a plant or animal, the more it feels familiar to us and, it follows, the more personally we feel connected to it. This is good news for nature, because we care most about the things we feel most connected to, and it’s good news for us, too.

Studies in the field of positive psychology have shown that our level of ‘nature connectedness’ directly relates to both our hedonic (short-term happiness and pleasure) and eudaimonic (long-lasting joy and life satisfaction) wellbeing.

More like this

Eudaimonic happiness – achieved by pursuing personal development and growth – is particularly important to our overall wellbeing, as it is more fulfilling in the long term.

One of the simplest ways we can strengthen our connection to nature is the act of identifying and naming.

“The need to name things stems from a deep urge in humanity to understand the world… in all its rich diversity; to recognise and respect other creatures… and by naming them to acknowledge their unique individuality,” writes ornithologist Adam Ford in his book Mindful Thoughts for Birdwatchers.

Did you know? Reading for six minutes lowers cortisol, and with it your stress level, by 68 per cent. It works by helping to clear your mind and minimise body tension.

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Image: Woman reading a book outdoors © Atsushi Yamada/Getty

Woman reading a book outdoors. © Atsushi Yamada/Getty

There are physiological health benefits to learning about nature, too. Anything that expands our knowledge also boosts our cognitive functioning, which improves our concentration, alertness and memory, and helps to reduce cognitive ageing.

Being able to identify and name a particular species also requires us to look closely, or listen or smell, to focus and notice the differences that distinguish one species from another.

This noticing is, in itself, a form of mindfulness – a way to be present, clear our minds and let go of stress or anxiety.

“Learning a name becomes a way of noticing; it helps us to look searchingly, with all our critical questioning faculties engaged. And with close looking, comes pleasure,” says Ford.

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Image: Jay feather © AlesVeluscek/Getty

Jay feather

Nature photography is another activity that encourages us to look closely, be curious and discover the names of species. With the advent of smartphones, photography is increasingly accessible and, paradoxically, this is one instance when our devices can be useful in building a sense of connection.

Professional photographer, author and co-founder of Close-up Photographer of the Year, Tracy Calder recommends close-up photography for connecting with nature.

“When you move in close to a subject, you become aware of all the tiny details, which allows stress to fade into the background,” she says.

Tracy became interested in close-up photography about 10 years ago.

“I had a fast-paced job in the magazine industry, which could be quite stressful at times, so I started photographing the wildflowers close to my home in Sussex.”

Studying the slipper-like flowers of common bird’s-foot-trefoil or the flush of pink on the underside of a wood anemone proved, she says, to be “a balm for the soul”.

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Image: A butterfly perched on flower and looking at camera, Slovakia © Getty

A butterfly perched on flower and looking at camera, Slovakia

3. Embrace the power of giving

Your generosity and kindness will not only help nature, it’ll do you the world of good, too

Giving is good for us. We know this instinctively. When we give, we feel good. We experience what scientists describe as the ‘warm glow effect’ or ‘helper’s high’, caused by a release of endorphins in the brain.

Research into this effect by the US National Institutes of Health discovered that giving to charities stimulates the areas of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust.

A second US study by Claremont Graduate University found that giving may also trigger the release of oxytocin, another hormone associated with feelings of warmth, euphoria and connection.

Put simply, altruism is a proven path to good mental health. When our altruism is related to nature, and in particular when we give our time and effort, the rewards for our wellbeing are far-reaching.

Whether we’re on a volunteering holiday supporting a conservation project, working to maintain wildlife habitats in our local area or contributing to a citizen science survey by monitoring wildlife in our back garden, our care and kindness has the power to boost our mood and strengthen our self-esteem, especially when we learn new skills.

There are benefits to our physical health from taking part in these activities, too, including an improvement in our fitness, lower blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health and better sleep.

The immersive and hands-on aspect of taking part in nature and wildlife conservation projects has also been shown to help combat stress, anxiety and low mood.

Voluntary work saved my life. It gave me something to do that was meaningful at a time when I was despairing. I rediscovered happiness and had an outlet for my obsessive compulsive tendencies – I will reach that piece of litter that is eluding me!
Ruth Lawton volunteer ranger at RSPB Sandwell Valley, West Midlands, UK

A three-year study by the University of Essex (published in 2017), which monitored volunteers taking part in the Wildlife Trusts’ nature conservation projects, found that 95 per cent of participants who reported low mental wellbeing at the start of volunteering, recorded an improvement in their mental health after six weeks, which increased further after 12 weeks.

“The research revealed how volunteering with meaningful, nature and craft-focussed activities may be beneficial to both the general public and individuals with defined needs,” concluded lead researcher Mike Rogerson.

Alan Murray, head of volunteering at the RSPB agrees: “We have more than 12,000 fantastic volunteers and between them they contribute almost one million hours every year. We believe our volunteers keep coming back because of nature’s power to restore, uplift and inspire and we’re confident that the more time people spend connecting with wildlife the more they feel moved to protect it.”

Volunteering as part of a group also provides an opportunity to meet like-minded people who share our values.

The Campaign to End Loneliness reports that a fifth of the UK population say they are often or always lonely; volunteering is a way to reach out and make human connections, as well as connect to the natural world.

Did you know? ‘Nature prescriptions’ are great value for money. For every £1 invested in nature volunteering projects, the NHS is likely to save money elsewhere.

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Image: Students pond dipping at Epping Forest Education centre. (Photo by: Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Students pond dipping at Epping Forest Education centre.

Research published in Psychology Today shows that strong social connections reduce anxiety and depression, boost our immune system and may even lengthen our lifespan.

Getting involved in wildlife volunteering enables individuals to get outside, meet people with a shared goal and make a difference, all of which contribute to increased wellbeing.

Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, has participated in several volunteering programs, learning about invasive species, planting trees and building trails. “It’s a fun way to get outside, meet people in a shared endeavour, and feel like you are making a difference,” she says, “and research has linked all of these things to increased wellbeing.”

This is also true of being a member of online communities created by citizen science projects.

Not all of us have the access to nature that we might like, but these online hubs give us the chance to volunteer our time, wherever we are. Help From Home is a directory of ‘microvolunteering’ opportunities, which include insect, bird and flower counts.

The positive impact for wildlife is also clear: with the public recording sightings, charities have access to a wealth of data they can use to map, track and better understand how to protect our natural world.

Main image: A woman sitting in the green grass © Yuji Arikawa/Getty

Kirstie Duhig is editor of HomeStyle, a monthly women’s lifestyle magazine and another publication produced by Our Media. She has a special interest in wellbeing, sustainable living and mindfulness.