Honking horns rattle your nerves as you fight traffic on your way to work; emails flood your inbox before you’ve even finished your coffee; coworkers pop into your office, interrupting you mid-thought—if only you could catch one moment of peace!
Amid stressors like these, I bet you have fantasized about doing what Scottish-American conservationist John Muir did.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” - John Muir, Our National Parks
In 1874, burned out from overworking in Oakland, Muir quit city life and fled to the mountains, finding rejuvenation in the fresh air and lush pines of Yosemite.
This experience and many other nature wanderings inspired his prolific writings and relentless advocacy for the preservation of America’s wilderness.
At home among flora and fauna, Muir—who once tried to convince an aging Ralph Waldo Emerson to ditch his stuffy hotel room to camp in a sequoia grove—knew what modern research confirms:
Nature can restore you, mentally and physically.
At a time when technology reigns supreme and there’s an app for every affliction, could the best productivity hack really be right outside your door and available for free?
Let’s look at the scientific evidence for getting back to nature and how you can make it happen in your life, no matter how citified.
Indulge In Forest Bathing
Mr. Muir was onto something when he first sought refuge among the pine trees. A meta-analysis of 64 studies has found hearty evidence for the health benefits of forest bathing. Also known as Shinrin-yoku, this Japanese practice of immersing yourself in the woods to relax and recharge has become popular around the world.
Its benefits include:
- Stress reduction. In a study in Japan, subjects walked a 15-minute predetermined course through forest and city areas, after which they sat still and watched the scenery for 15 minutes. In the forest compared to the city, blood pressure, pulse rate, and salivary cortisol concentration were significantly lower, leading researchers to confirm the relaxation benefits of Shinrin-yoku.
- Enhanced immune function. In a 2007 study from Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, twelve subjects were sent on a three-day, two-night forest excursion. Researchers took blood samples from the participants three days before the trip, as well as on the second and third days following.
Their findings? During and after the journey, all of the subjects showed an enhanced immune response; specifically, their blood contained more “Natural Killer cells,” the lymphocytes that can destroy tumor cells!
- Improved sleep. A 2013 study from Nippon Medical School found that subjects who took walks through a forest on a three-day trip had longer sleep times after, even though their physical activity levels during the trip were the same as before.
- Decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety. To see if forest therapy could reduce depression and anxiety in chronic stroke patients, researchers randomly assigned patients to stay either in a recreational forest site or in an urban hotel. Even though the duration and activities were the same, the patients in the forest group scored significantly lower on measures of anxiety and depression following treatment, while those in the urban group scored higher on an anxiety inventory.
- Pain relief. Researchers in Korea studied the effects of forest bathing on people with chronic widespread pain and found that those who completed a two-day forest therapy program reported significant decreases in pain and depression.
By now, you’re probably itching to run to the nearest forest. To find one in the States, search the U.S. Forest Service website and enjoy one of the 154 national forests open to explore.
In Japan, 62 Forest Therapy Bases have been tested and certified by the Forest Therapy Society to have healing and preventive medical properties. You can also check out the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, which has more than 700 guides in 48 countries.
Add Plants to Your Workspace
Forest bathing may sound dreamy, but perhaps the closest thing you have to a tree is a nearby skyscraper amongst an urban jungle.
What’s a stressed-out city worker to do? Bring nature to your office!
In a Washington State University study, participants were placed in a windowless room and asked to complete timed tasks either in the presence or absence of plants. The participants who had plants in the room during testing were more productive (12% faster reaction time) and less stressed (lower blood pressure readings).
Some of the plants used in the study include:
- Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant)
- Philodendron scandens (heartleaf philodendron)
- Syngonium podophyllum (arrowhead plant)
- Dracaena marginata (dragon tree)
If you want to get a productivity boost and calm your nerves, consider heading to the closest nursery and buying a plant for your office.
Soak in Some Sun
Speaking of plants, much like our leafy companions, we too need sunlight to thrive. For one, our bodies rely on light as a cue that we should be awake. If that signal gets blocked, such as by working in a windowless office, we can feel drowsy even in the middle of the day.
Secondly, our bodies need sunlight to make vitamin D, a nutrient that helps regulate our mood. Low levels of vitamin D can lead to depression and lethargy.
And as it turns out, many office workers are craving more of the goods we used to get from spending time outside. In a poll of more than 1,600 Northern American employees, the number one workplace perk was access to natural light and views of the outdoors. These simple luxuries outranked cafeterias, fitness centers, and on-site childcare. Nearly half of respondents reported feeling tired from the absence of natural light in their office.
As you can see, science makes a case for opening those blinds or vying for an office with a window. And if you can’t manage that, try installing blue-enriched white light bulbs, which research has shown can help boost mood and alertness. You could also incorporate outdoor walking breaks into your workday.
Admire Nature Through A Window Or In A Photo
Not all of us can step away from our desks to bask in the great outdoors, and if that’s the case for you, try glancing outside your window instead.
A study at a Pennsylvania hospital found that post-operative patients placed in rooms with views of nature had shorter hospital stays and took fewer painkillers than those assigned to similar rooms with views of a brick wall.
If you don’t have a window view, this University of Melbourne study suggests that just looking at a picture of greenery might do the trick.
- One hundred fifty subjects were asked to perform a computer task. After five minutes, they were given a 40-second break, during which an image of a concrete roof appeared on their screens.
- Half of the subjects saw a bare concrete roof, while the other half saw a roof with a green, flowering meadow. When they resumed testing, the folks who had seen a plain concrete roof experienced a decrease in concentration, and their performance became less consistent.
- On the other hand, the subjects who had viewed the lush, green roof showed a boost in concentration and performed consistently.
So the next time you’re losing focus, try looking at a natural landscape, even if it’s only on your computer screen.
Imagine The Outdoors
So we’ve scaled it back from full-on forest immersion to nature photos on your desktop. But can you lower the barrier to entry even more? It turns out you can.
Thanks to guided imagery—a relaxation technique that helps you conjure up mental images—all you need is your imagination to reap some of the benefits of being in nature. Guided imagery is also known as visualization, which top athletes like Tiger Woods have been using for years to boost performance.
Research supports the health effects of guided imagery, particularly nature-related imagery. In one study of its effects on anxiety, two experimental groups completed both a nature GI session and a non-nature GI session. While both types of guided imagery lowered participants’ anxiety levels, it was the nature GI that resulted in the largest decrease in anxiety.
Researchers developed nature-based guided imagery scripts specifically for the experiment. The scripts contained the following characteristics:
- Participants were asked to take themselves to a place in nature rather than being told where to place themselves.
- The scripts focused on getting participants to engage with the environment in their mind using all five senses.
- The scripts were voice recorded into an audio file but did not include any music or other sounds.
Some of the characteristic phrases participants generated during the imagery exercise include “on a beach sitting in the sand,” “a pine forest with a creek,” and “backyard sitting in a recliner chair with my dog taking a nap beside me.”
How does imagining you’re on a sunny beach affect your stressed-out body?
I had a hard time believing this actually worked, so I pored over the research, searching for an answer that made sense. And this is what finally made it click for me: You and I already practice our own version of guided imagery all the time.
How? By worrying.
Any time you ruminate over an argument you had with a friend or fret over a presentation you’re about to give at work, we are visualizing (in a negative way). And you can probably vouch for the physical effect worrying has on your body: your heart starts racing, your palms get sweaty, you feel upset all because of something that’s happening only in your mind.
So why shouldn’t that work in the reverse?
If the mind can make the body feel stressed, it can help it to feel relaxed, too.
According to the Mayo Clinic, when you do guided imagery, you send a message to your brain’s emotional control center; that message then moves along to your body’s endocrine, immune, and autonomic nervous systems, which control things like our heart rate and blood pressure.
All in all, finding relaxation during a stressful workday may be as simple as reliving your favorite memory of the outdoors.
Get Back To Nature Before Getting Back To Work
You can be a big fan of technology, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the proven health and performance benefits provided by nature. With the average American spending about 90% of their time indoors, there’s plenty of room for improvement, but it doesn’t need to be drastic.
As research has shown, you don’t even have to be outside to reap some of nature’s benefits. Start small, even if it's with a potted plant in your office.
But hey, we won’t fault you if you decide to go full John Muir and escape to a cabin in the mountains (Let’s just hope it has Wi-Fi).
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