I haven’t always been able to snowshoe to work. In fact, I didn’t own snowshoes until moving here just over two years ago. For me, one of the big attractions of Peterborough was the easy access to natural areas – parks, forests, lakes, hills, and the beautiful Otonabee river. And all this is close by, with services, restaurants, and live music only a short bike ride away. Peterborough’s bike paths are a joy in the summer, but more on that in a future column, perhaps. When the temperature dips and the snow falls, the fields and woods reveal a different and secret world. Places that were swampy, wet, and inaccessible become fantastic new frozen walkways. Animal tracks reveal a story of recent rabbit, fox, and deer ‘traffic’ through the hills I hike over on my way to and from work. One of the best things about Peterborough is what I like to call “nearby nature” – flora and fauna that’s close to home and easily accessible every day. We have this in Millenium Park, in Beavermead Park, the Trent nature areas, and many other spots in between. The more remote wilderness areas in the Kawarthas or Algonquin Park are also within a relatively short drive, but it’s the daily nature contact that provides my stress relief and keeps me happy. And the research on nature indicates I may not be alone in this.
Intuitively, we are drawn to nature as a place to relax and unwind. When thinking about an ideal vacation spot, people often mention beaches and sun, or mountains and skiing. Despite our spectacular and varied natural geography, most Canadians don’t get outdoors very often. On average, we spend 90% of our time inside. We may not think of nature contact as a health practice, but in other parts of the world scientists have been studying nature’s benefits for several decades. Forest medicine researchers in Japan, Korea, and Finland are untangling the nature-specific mechanisms responsible for stress reduction. Our built environments are often full of traffic, technology, and noise. This detracts from the limited attentional resources we have, making us tired and unable to concentrate. Natural environments seem to replenish these resources as well as improve our mood. Medical researchers and environmental psychologists have been testing how nature contact can improve human physical and mental health, to buffer the stress of modern living.
In Japan, people visit designated “forest bathing” sites – natural areas with walking paths and programs that encourage close contact with nature. Loosely translated, the Japanese term shinrin-yoku means taking in the forest air. Researchers have discovered that spending time walking in the forest lowers blood pressure and benefits immune system functioning, whereas walking in a hectic city scape does not. The benefits of these forest bathing experiences can last for up to a month following a weekend nature excursion. In Korea, the Forest Ministry encourages citizens to have regular nature contact as part of the nation’s health promotion strategy. Growing interest in this topic stems from evidence of the hazards of stress, indoor ‘screen time’, and the consequences of a potential disconnect from our natural world.
Even though nature contact is good for us, our lifestyles mean we may be missing out on some of the potential health advantages nature offers. One reason for this may be that we underestimate how enjoyable nature will be. In research my colleagues and I conducted in Ottawa, people were randomly assigned to walk either indoors (through the campus tunnel system) or outdoors (along a river, not unlike our Otonabee). In a series of experiments, people were asked to make predictions for how the walk would feel. Some people also reported on their happiness after the walk. Outdoor walkers anticipated a pleasant experience, but it was significantly better than expected (indoor walkers were less happy than they expected). In other words, people underestimated the personal happiness benefits of nearby nature.
My work in this line of research has not made me immune to this error. There are many days where I dread bundling up and heading out for a cold, windy, or rainy commute to work, or anticipate a dreary walk with the dog. But no matter the conditions, I always feel better having braved the elements and to-date I have never regretted being outside. Having good footwear and clothing helps, and time enough to travel by foot or bike may be a luxury, depending on where one lives. But often my time spent commuting up and over the snowy hills is not much different to what it would be in a car, when factoring in traffic, parking, and other hassles like scraping off snow and ice.
My enjoyment is partly based on my personal preference, familiarity, and comfort with my nearby Peterborough surroundings. There may be some historical reasons for our general fascination with the outdoors, however. Noted sociobiologist E. O. Wilson proposed the concept of biophilia, to explain humans’ innate need to connect with nature. The biophilia hypothesis is based on the fact that our ancestors evolved in natural environments and only began living in cities, separate from nature, relatively recently. Our fondness for nature photographs, our love of pets, gardening, and birdwatching, for example, are suggestive evidence of biophilia (evolutionary theories are difficult to test but the health research above is supportive, along with a growing body of empirical work on nature connection). Our lack of nature contact points to a possible nature deficit, however. We may not be benefiting from nature contact as much as we could be.
For some people, nature may seem scary, uncomfortable, or even disgusting (U.S. researchers studied just this type of perception in school children; it predicted interest in future outdoor careers). Indeed people do differ in their connection with nature and how much they enjoy the outdoors. As scientists, psychologists measure this sense of connection, similar to how we measure personality traits like hostility, and investigate links with other important individual differences in physical health and well-being. It turns out that connecting with nature regularly and a strong sense of connectedness are good for us. Living near greenspace reduces some of the health risks associated with income inequality. Neighbourhoods with more greenery have greater community cohesion and lower crime rates. And people who report more connection with nature are generally happier. In experiments using images of nature, people are more caring, generous, and cooperative, compared to when viewing images of the built environment.
Increasingly, we are encouraged to be proactive in managing our own health. Wise use of our tax dollars and high quality health care is a priority for most Canadians. By not taking advantage of nature, we may be missing out on opportunities to reduce stress, increase our energy, and boost our personal happiness. Some wellness programs are drawing on nature’s benefits, such as the Mood Walks program for older adults, in conjunction with the Canadian Mental Health Association and Hike Ontario. In addition, each year several thousand Canadians sign up for the May 30×30 nature challenge, and pledge to spend 30 minutes outdoor for a month. The research from the first two years of study indicates that the more people increase their nature time, the larger the increases in personal happiness. Finding time to connect with nature may not always be easy, but a daily dose of nature contact – going for a walk, toboganning, skating, or skiing – could be the ideal prescription to chase away any late winter blues.