Ecotherapy is the practice of spending time in nature for the sake of wellness. It seems obvious that spending time in nature would positively affect our health—after all, we are animals designed to live in nature, and who hasn’t felt the exhilarating effects of a walk in the forest or a swim in the ocean? But even if it appears obvious, it wasn’t until recently that science started backing up every nature lover’s intuitive feeling: spending time in nature has concrete health benefits.
We all know that spending too much time in front of computer screens and tablets isn’t good for our eyes (and poring over paperwork all day long—or simply reading constantly—aren’t exactly advertised as great either). What most of us didn’t know is that spending time in nature seems to have a decidedly positive effect on eye health.
Various studies have found that spending time outdoors can help prevent nearsightedness, or rather: those who spend more time outdoors are less prone to become nearsighted, even if their parents are nearsighted. Researchers believe that spending time in outdoor light helps the eye develop the right distance between the lens and the retina. (1)
It appears that spending at least two hours a day outside is crucial, so if you have kids whose eyes are still developing, make it a daily habit to spend time outdoors. The good news is that even reading and playing on a tablet can be done outdoors or in a sunroom. You could even build a reading nook with glass/plastic walls if you can’t afford or simply don’t wish to build a sunroom! Or just put a desk and a couch in a greenhouse.
One study found that the symptoms of ADD/ADHD were significantly lessened by spending time in green spaces. Spending time outdoors without the greenery didn’t have the same effect. Luckily, even big cities have parks with lots of greenery. And hey, why not turn one part of the house into a “green room” filled with plants, or build a conservatory where you put your office? (2)
The Immune System and Overall Health
Something called “forest bathing” (aka Shinrin-yoku) has become popular in Japan. You might think this involves having baths in nature, but it simply means spending time in forests. How you do it doesn’t matter—you can go on a hiking adventure, sit meditating on a cliff, canoe along a river, bike up a mountain, or practice breathing techniques in the park—the important part is to spend time in a forest.
Why is this important?
Because research has shown that “forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.” These results came from a study done across 24 forests in Japan using 280 participants. This shows promise that forests walks are good not only for physical health but also for mental health. (3)
So-called natural killer (NK) cells are bone marrow-derived lymphocytes that are needed for the prevention of cancer and infection. You could say they form part of our immune system. The interesting thing? A study in Japan showed that a three-day trip to the forest and eleven out of twelve participants increased their NK cell levels by about 50%! Other studies have found similar increases and also noticed that the NK cell levels stay elevated for up to a month, meaning that getting out into the forest only once a month might still have a significantly positive effect on your immune system. (4) (5) (6)
Don’t have time to visit the forest every month? One study found that wood essential oils (phytoncides) alone have an effect on NK cells. So maybe it’s time to start considering aromatherapy in addition to ecotherapy? After all, it’s shown promise when it comes to reducing stress levels. And it’s no wonder—doesn’t the smell of flowers in summer make you smile and feel more relaxed? (7)
Ecotherapy is good not just for physical but also for mental wellness. Several studies have found that spending time in nature can prevent/help cure depression and increase vitality. (9) (10)
A UK study suggested that when people did exercise in nature as opposed to indoors, they experienced less anger, sadness, and depression. (11)
If you feel you are going through a lot of stress, you suffer from anxiety or depression, or you simply feel less energized than normal, then ecotherapy could be a good way of helping improve your mental health. There is also a strong correlation between stress and physical illness, so while working on your mental wellness, chances are you will also improve your physical wellness.
For city dwellers, spending time in nature can seem daunting—little time, little money, no interest in watching birds…but it could be seen as an excuse to:
- go for picnics in the park
- go for romantic strolls in the park
- do a monthly hike, which includes a visit to a new town/village (and dining in new restaurants…or having a glass of wine by the fire in a pub)
- going on camping adventures
- hiking up a mountain
- going for a romantic row around a lake
- going on moonlit hikes/sunrise hikes
- visiting the oceanside
- going on wilderness tours
- roasting marshmallows in the forest
- getting a dog that needs walking
- infusing your home with aromatherapy from essential oils, including those from wood
- collecting materials in nature for arts and crafts projects
- foraging mushrooms for your next stew, berries for your jam-making session, or pinecones for your fire
- taking botanical walks with experts
- learning wildlife survival
- joining the scouts
- doing activities in forest settings, such as paintballing, slacklining, or zip-lining
- ice skating, skiing, and/or going for sleigh rides in winter
- visiting apple orchards, vineyards, and other farms
- going on walking holidays/adventure trips in nature
- volunteering at a community garden
- creating a conservatory/sunroom, a reading nook with glass walls, or simply a room filled with pots and plants!
There are so many wonderful experiences to be had in nature. With a little bit of creativity, you can turn ecotherapy into an excuse to live a little! Give it a try even if you are a born-and-bred city dweller.