By Diana Ballon | April 22, 2022
Who doesn’t know intuitively that nature is good for us – that we likely feel calmer and less stressed when we are in a forest or a park or walking by the water? While we know that nature enhances our cognitive, emotional and spiritual well-being, new research also indicates its physical benefits too.
“Nature experience boosts memory, attention and creativity as well as happiness, social engagement and a sense of meaning in life,” said Gretchen Daily, faculty director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project, a project that illuminates the values of nature and integrates them into policies and investments. “It might not surprise us that nature stimulates physical activity, but the associated health benefits – from reducing cancer risks to promoting metabolic and other functioning – are really quite astonishing.”
Enjoying urban green space
While “being in nature” is an obvious benefit of a trip to the country, Stanford researchers looked into ways that we can get a “health boost” from nature in cities as well. The Natural Capital Project’s goal is to circumvent the challenges of experiencing nature in cities, and thus create more equity in people’s access to nature – whether they live in crowded inner-city housing, penthouse apartments or elsewhere in a congested urban jungle.
There is good reason to focus on augmenting “natural” experiences. According to research by J. Peen and colleagues, published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, urban living is associated with increased mental health problems: mood disorders up to 39% higher, anxiety disorders up to 21% greater, and twice the risk of schizophrenia. While it’s difficult to make a clear correlation between city life and mental health problems, it is clear that green spaces, biking options, smaller communities and more access to nature have all been associated with more self-reported happiness.
Finding “urban nature” might mean cycling along a tree-lined street or on a waterfront trail, taking your dog for a walk in a nearby park, planting in a community garden or taking photos of an evening sunset. These are all relatively “accessible” activities.
Other ways to reduce anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia, irritability or even help with grief?
Here are some suggestions:
- Try outdoor yoga. Google “park yoga” in your area, or consider getting some friends together and then hiring a yoga instructor to do weekly classes in a nearby park or backyard garden.
- Go on a camping trip. Never camped before? Look into Ontario Parks’ “Learn to camp” program at: www.ontarioparks.com/learntocamp
- Meet people and get out into nature with Parkbus [www.parkbus.ca], which connects urbanites with nature by organizing bus trips from Toronto and Vancouver, and possibly other Canadian cities. This includes subsidized transportation for newcomers and underrepresented populations in Canada through NatureLink. Outdoor adventurists interested in guided group activities to go hiking, paddleboarding or canoeing can also sign up for their weekend ActiveDays programs.
- Find a park closest to you. Check out Ontario Parks’ park locator [www.ontarioparks.com/park-locator], where you can refine your search by activity (e.g., camping with a dog, birding festivals, hiking or rock climbing) and by facilities and rentals (e.g., pet exercise areas; and bike, canoe or kayak rentals).
- Visit a botanical garden or a zoo or a nature centre.
- Learn how to become an urban beekeeper. To learn how to do this, see the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association site at ontariobee.com/research/getting-started/is-beekeeping-for-me/ten-steps-to-start
- Shop at a farmer’s market. To find a market near you, see Farmers’ Market Ontario at farmersmarketsontario.com/.
Given the United Nations’ projection that 68% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050, access to nature will be that much more important. As these options demonstrate, even people living in cities don’t need to travel far to experience the health benefits of being in nature.