Getting Out in Nature is Good for You

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Shilagh Mirgain, PhD


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Dr. Shilagh Mirgain helps athletes overcome obstacles to successful rehabilitation from injury.Madison, Wisconsin - Summertime, and the living is easy – as the lyrics go. But, if you're finding yourself spending more time in air-conditioning than beachside, it may be time to make a change. As UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain explains, enjoying time in nature is critical to your health.

"The average adult spends more time behind a screen than they do sleeping. Kids spend as little as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, but more than seven hours on average in front of an electronic screen. This can have significant consequences to our mental, emotional and physical well- being," she comments.

According to Mirgain, there are three reasons why we need to spend more time in nature, including:

  • Many of us have "Nature Deficit Disorder"
  • Being outdoors benefits our well-being
  • We can find inspiration, creativity and meaning in nature

Nature Deficit Disorder

Nature Deficit Disorder is a term coined by author Richard Louv in his 2005 best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods. It's not intended to be a diagnostic term. Instead, Louv uses it to explain that the increasing loss of connection to nature is a chronic condition that has increasingly resulted in emotional and behavioral problems in kids. The cure, as it were, is a return to nature, to turn off the screens and go for hikes, camp, fish and play outdoors.


Being in green spaces – out in nature – the argument goes, can help improve children's cognitive skills, enhance creativity and even help manage disorders such as ADHD. And it's not just kids who suffer the consequences of being disconnected from our natural environment (an issue Louv addressed in a later book as well).

"More people live in cities than the countryside, which decreases the role that nature plays in our daily lives. And we continue to become increasingly disconnected from it," says Mirgain. It's even reflected in our art.


Research done by Pelin Kesebir from the Center for Healthy Minds at UW and Selin Kesebir at the London Business School found that, especially since the 1950s the use of nature words in English books, popular song lyrics, and movie plot summaries, has declined. This suggests we are not living as closely tied to nature as we used to.


"This disconnection impacts our well-being as humans have an innate preference for nature and there are tremendous benefits to being outdoors," says Mirgain.

Benefits to our Well-Being

To illustrate how nature helps, Mirgain points to a study of walkers. Two groups go for a walk – one in the park, the other in the city. The results show that a short walk in the park, as little as ten minutes, actually affected participants' brains. The walk helped decrease stress hormones like cortisol, and improved thinking and even memory. All of which goes to suggest that time in nature can help relieve mental fatigue, improve focus and help boost our mood.

"Time in nature is restorative in so many ways," comments Mirgain. "It improves our well-being, enhances our ability to cope, improves our quality of sleep, increases a sense of vitality and helps us have a more positive outlook on life. And there's even been research that suggests individuals who live within a half-mile of a park or wooded area experience less anxiety and depression than those who live farther away."

She also cites research that suggests hospitalized patients have shorter stays and require less medication when their rooms overlook natural areas or they have access to the outdoors. So in many ways, nature truly does help the mind and body. As for the soul, that's where inspiration comes in.

Inspiration and Creativity

Time in nature helps provide a sense of meaning and purpose. Experiencing the natural cycles – even just observing summer give way to fall, then winter – can remind us of the impermanence of life. It also helps give us hope. As many Wisconsinites will attest – thoughts of spring help them make it through those bitter cold January and February days.

"Observing nature and the life cycles helps remind us that no matter what difficulty we're facing, it will change and get better," says Mirgain. "Staring up into the night sky reminds us of the vastness of life. Finding the awe in every day can help provide perspective that gives meaning to our lives. We can often find solutions to a problem and generate our most creative ideas when we are connected with nature."


Read how finding the awe in every day can also benefit your health


Prioritize Getting Outside

Mirgain recommends making the outdoors a priority in your summer plans. Go for an evening walk, garden, go to the park, camp, plan a summer vacation and visit beautiful places – but get outside.

"If you have kids," Mirgain suggests, "let them explore the natural world and try not to constantly remind them to be careful. Instead encourage them to pay attention to their surroundings. They can gain confidence by being outdoors and noticing and discovering the world around them. And it helps them learn to appreciate the need to protect this precious resource."

When you can't get outdoors, bring it indoors to you – buy a plant for your home or office. Enjoy a bouquet of fresh flowers. Don't limit yourself to just a picture, but bring something you can feel and even smell to help engage all of your senses.

"Being in nature is a basic human need. We may forget that sometimes in our carefully controlled environments. But the key to improving our lives is right outside our windows," she explains.


Date Published: 07/22/2015

News tag(s):  shilagh a mirgainwellness

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