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The Nature Connection

Albert Einstein once said “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” We all know the feeling we get after connecting with nature – whether it be from a blissful walk on the beach to de-stress, or the camping holiday that has us return to our daily routine with a heightened sense of focus, perspective and reinvigoration. Find out why the need to venture into nature more regularly is so imperative, and beneficial to our health. 

Words Natalie Cyra

Aotearoa – the land of the long white cloud – a country known all over the world for its spectacular landscapes and clean, green spaces. One could assume that being so blessed with what lies in our own backyard – the beaches, mountain ranges, lush bush and tranquil parks – Kiwis take the opportunity to connect with nature whenever possible. However, an increasingly built-up environment coupled with expanding urbanisation has resulted in more people living in cities with fewer opportunities to access nature, says the Ministry of Health’s Principal Advisor for Public Health, Nutrition and Physical Activity, Harriette Carr. In addition, technological changes and developments at work and at home, including labour-saving devices (remote controls, smart devices, dryers and vehicle convenience) are further encouraging and supporting a more sedentary lifestyle.

With our days now revolving around ticking off that ever-expanding to-do list, reconnecting with nature is more important than ever, not just for our physical health but also for our wellbeing. Whether that looks like a walk or run before work, or an afternoon spent tending to the garden, doing activities outside ease us back to our natural state of peace, happiness and calmness, says Auckland-based wellness and mindfulness expert Nikki Ralston. She recently taught yoga at the Wanderlust Festival in Taupo, and led a group hike which included picking wild blackberries to enjoy in the moment.

Ralston says although as a nation we are working longer hours, are more urban-dwelling and collectively we are more technology-dependent, making regular connection with our natural environment needn’t be difficult.

“Even in the middle of the city, there might be construction and traffic noise, but if you really tune in and listen, you’ll hear the cicadas, you’ll hear the birdsong. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds. That connection is still there, we just have to work a little harder to find it,” she says.

New research reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that spending time in nature makes us happier and more relaxed. The research found that being amongst the natural environment causes electrochemical changes in the brain, leading people to enter a highly beneficial state of ‘effortless attention’.

UK researchers from the study fitted mobile electrodes to subjects’ heads, who walked through three different environments: an urban shopping district, a lush, green park and a busy commercial zone. When moving through the green park, brain-wave activity indicated subjects entered relaxed and higher meditative states – as well as having lower frustration levels and lower ‘engagement and arousal’. Opposite reactions were recorded when the subjects entered the other environments. The researchers concluded that the mental benefit,  a state of happiness, occurs in individuals who are engaged in play, exploration, or other discovery-type activities.

Even the simple action of stepping outside on your lunch break, taking your shoes off and making the physical connection with the earth is good for you, says Ralston, restoring mental balance and resetting your focus before returning to work. Being outside also provides an important source of vitamin D, which is imperative for optimising bone health and muscle function, adds Carr.

Studies have actually shown that just gazing at nature – whether it be through the window or within a piece of art – can improve our concentration and productivity levels. Research from Melbourne involved 150 participants who were given the task of hitting specific keystrokes when certain numbers flashed on a computer screen, and after five minutes they were given a 40-second break. During the break, half of the subjects were shown an image of a concrete rooftop surrounded by tall buildings, while the other half were shown an image of a roof covered with flowering greenery. When the task resumed, concentration levels fell by eight per cent from those given the concrete roof image, compared to a rise of six per cent in concentration levels by those given the green roof to observe. The study concluded that engaging in these green ‘microbreaks’ can help improve workplace attention and performance.

Nature for mental health

Research is growing exponentially that proves nature can provide a mental health boost – but also for creating longer-term preventative factors – decreasing the risk of stress, anxiety, and depression, says acting Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation Hugh Norriss.

“Nature can also help aid the recovery and rehabilitation of patients by acting as an anti-depressant,” he says.

Norriss has been leading the collaboration between the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) and the Department of Conservation (DOC) – a partnership which will develop projects to improve mental health and wellbeing and benefit conservation efforts across the country.

“As a nation and globally there is growing evidence and awareness that we are not flourishing. The irony is that we are burdened with lifestyle-related illnesses while trying to improve our lifestyles,” says DOC’s Project Coordinator Helen Gillespie.

“Nature is the under-utilised health resource of today. It’s free and accessible and is within everyone’s reach. There’s a bit of wild in us all and it is important now more than ever to reconnect with our wild side. Lower blood pressure and cortisol, improve mood, reduce crime rates, build social connection, reduce medication, improve productivity and post-operative recovery rates. What’s to lose?”, she says.

DOC also commissioned Lin Roberts, a senior lecturer for the Department of Environmental Management and her colleagues at Lincoln University in Canterbury, to create a research report called The Wellbeing of Nature. The report explains that being involved with others in activities and sharing particular experiences with them develops the bonds that tie people together in society, enhancing feelings of connectedness, trust, mutual obligation and belonging. New Zealand’s natural spaces provide a wide range of settings for shared activities such as tramping, climbing, sailing, swimming, picnicking, walking and cycling.

“Our connection or reconnection to nature has always been important but it’s more a fact that we have lost touch with it, or that we have lost sight of how important it is in terms of how our whole wellbeing depends on it,” says Roberts.

“Nature is the most under-utilised health resource of today. It’s free, accessible and is within everyone’s reach.” – Helen Gillespie

Roberts also adds that the connotation of money buying happiness is misguided.

“Essentially, money can make you happy up to a certain point. The happiness research is now showing very clearly that things that are most valuable to our happiness and wellbeing are things like spending time with other people, spending time in nature and feeling gratitude,” she says. “Those prescriptions like ‘go and take a walk in the bush’ will do more for you than working extra hours to get more money so you can buy more stuff. We’re losing connection with the system that is supporting us.”

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