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Do you spend enough time in the green outdoors?

I read recently that the average American spends between 80-99% of their time indoors. More frightening still, that time is increasing.

Now if you live somewhere very cold like the Arctic, or somewhere very hot like Dubai where you can singe your nostril hairs just breathing in when going outside, that is understandable. But how many of us going about our daily lives in more temperate environments spend a lot of our day inside?

Does this matter?

Yes and it’s not just because our levels of vitamin D need to be topped up, a great deal of research has demonstrated the health and cognitive benefits of spending time in nature.

It’s time to go green for a number of reasons.

It reduces stress.

When working full time as a GP and with a young family, it wasn’t always easy to get away from work or home, but we usually managed to spend time on the weekends with the kids either on the beach, at a park or in the bush. Many holidays were spent camping and it was on those trips especially I could feel the tension quickly melting away as the pressure to be “doing” disappeared and we took time to enjoy the simple pleasures of sitting round a campfire watching the myriad of stars in the night sky, listening to the birdsong in the trees or standing in wonder looking at the beauty nature chose to share with us.

Our busy lives and increasing reliance on technology has made us impatient to stay connected, to be always looking for what’s coming next and reluctant to take time out.

Do you ever feel guilty that you’re wasting time if you’re not being productive?

When was the last time you sat or walked quietly on your own for a short time, doing nothing except spending time with your thoughts?

Do you find it easy to leave your technology behind when going out for a walk, to exercise or when you go o holiday?

Next time you’re in a green space try this noticing practice to take advantage of the stress-reducing effect.

  1. Look up around you and take in the space you’re in. What do you see?
  2. Listen to the sounds. Can you hear the wind, birdsong, the ocean, or the sound of your feet walking on the ground?
  3. Do you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin or the breeze blowing your hair?

The positive effects of spending time in nature have been known for a while. Back in 1984 Japanese doctors used to prescribe shinrin-yoku or forest bathing for the positive effects of reducing blood pressure and heart rate.

Ecotherapy is a technique used today to help those suffering from anxiety and depression. It’s effective at reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, improving self-esteem and deepening a sense of social connection.

It keeps us healthy.

Spending time in a green space provides us the opportunity to be more physically active. This leads to a boost in dopamine and serotonin levels and elevates mood. When we feel good, this has a positive effect on our immune system making us more resilient vs illness.

Not only that we live longer too (well at least the ladies do). Evidence from the Nurses Health Study found a positive relationship between spending time in a green space and mortality. Women living in the greenest areas enjoyed a lower mortality rate of 12% compared to those who lived with the least exposure to green space.

Other studies have shown how our brain waves differ when spending time in a green space compared to being in a built-up area.

It improves cognition.

Primary school children growing up in a green area and playing in a natural environment exhibit greater curiosity and engagement.

I remember spending hours playing in the garden as a child, fascinated by the bugs, worms and other wiggly creatures I discovered. This type of play is associated with a more positive mindset and imagination providing the cognitive advantage of greater focus and attention, reduced fear of risk, greater mastery and self-control, and an improved sense of self.

It balances out our attention fatigue.

Busy days and demanding work schedules require us to spend a lot of time focusing our attention on all our critical tasks, which is tiring.

Simultaneously we spend a large amount of cognitive energy fending off distractions and interruptions, all of which adds to our increasing mental fatigue.

This is where going green can help.

In the office environment, the presence of a green pot-plant in view of your workstation has been shown to reduce the impact of cognitive fatigue, speeding up recovery for improved attention and retention of information.

Town planners and workspace environmentalists have recognised how exposure to green space helps to maintain good mental health, a positive mood and better cognitive functioning.

If the daily grind is wearing you out, causing fatigue and frustration, taking time out regularly to spend in a green space can help restore your sense of calm, well-being and confidence.

Far from being time wasted, spending time in nature can help you stay grounded, focused and thinking well.

That’s smarter thinking by design.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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