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STAGES OF NATURE CONNECTION: Three Steps to Better Health

About the Author

Dr. Andy Lenartz is an outdoor enthusiast and Psychology Faculty at GateWay Community College in Phoenix, Arizona. He has been formally studying the connection between nature exposure and physical and mental wellbeing for five years but has been informally working in this area for most of his adult life. His writing and presentations on this topic seek to make an impact in Phoenix and beyond by re-connecting members of the community with our natural environment.

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Agrowing body of research tells us that a connection to nature offers us a host of physical and mental health benefits. Most of us could improve our connection with nature. The good news is that doing so is fun— and simple.

Just 30 minutes per day, a couple of additional hours once per week, and a few focused days per year will send you down a path toward greater overall well-being.

Stage One: Nature Breaks

With the busy and full schedules of today’s world, where exactly is time for nature breaks supposed to come from? The good news: taking nature breaks doesn’t require adding anything new. Instead, you can combine time in nature with activities you already do. Even better news: taking 10 minutes for quiet reflection will actually increase your available time. Settling and organizing your mind pays dividends many times over in increased productivity and creativity.

A study by Hunter, Gillespie, & Chen; 2019 found that just 10 minutes of nature exposure was beneficial, and between 20-30 minutes demonstrated the most significant drop in levels of stress.

Obtaining the 10 daily minutes of nature exposure doesn’t require visiting the Grand Canyon. This connection can be obtained where you live, work, and play. Spending time in any type of outdoor space with a natural environment will provide benefits from nature exposure.

Here are a few ideas for getting in 10 minutes of nature each day:

  • Pack up your family dinner and dine outside in a neighborhood park. Or have breakfast on your front porch.
  • Take your work outside and suggest that your kids complete homework outside.
  • Replace 10 minutes of daily screen time with a short walk around the block.
  • Keep a daily nature journal. Watch for and record observations specific to your home and backyard.
  • Move work meetings outdoors, particularly when meeting with 1 or 2 people.
  • Get a dog. Walking the dog twice per day will automatically meet your goal.
  • Plant a garden. This will absolutely increase daily time spent outside.
  • Find an outdoor activity you enjoy. Particularly one involving friends or family to keep you accountable.

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Stage Two: Nature Play

This stage involves spending a few consecutive hours outdoors once a week. Longer periods of time in nature on a regular basis provides a deeper connection than the daily nature breaks permit, allowing more of the stress and urgency of daily life to recede and more space to get in tune with the rhythms of nature. A study of Danish schoolchildren found fewer but longer sessions in the outdoors led to greater psychosocial benefits including improved well-being, decreased hyperactivity-inattention, and fewer peer problems (Bolling, Niclasen, Bentsen, & Nielsen; 2019). Combining daily, brief nature breaks with more extended weekly nature engagement provides the full physical, psychological, and emotional benefits from nature exposure.

Many people find combining outdoor time with physical activity an enjoyable way to fit outdoor time into a busy schedule.

Some ways to be physically active out in nature:

  • Take a walk at a local park.
  • Hike, bike, or run at a city or regional park.
  • Participate in organized outdoor sports – softball, soccer, tennis, basketball, quidditch – whatever interests you and gets you out of the house.
  • Go swimming, rowing, kayaking, or paddleboarding at a local lake.
  • Head out for rock climbing.
  • Go geocaching.
  • Take your typical fitness or yoga routine outdoors.

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For others, this inspires little desire, which is fine! Gaining the benefits of nature exposure does not require physical activity. Finding any regular outdoor activity you enjoy provides the benefits of nature exposure.

Some outdoor activities many people enjoy:

  • Photography
  • Drawing, painting, any other type of art
  • Journaling or writing
  • Bird watching
  • Social gatherings

Stage Three: Nature Immersion

This one actually could involve visiting the Grand Canyon, or any other natural space providing an extended stay in a more peaceful environment. Fully immersing in nature for a couple of days each year provides the opportunity to disconnect from our fast-paced, technology-driven modern society to a slower-paced, more meaningful connection with nature. The daily and weekly nature connections allow us to re-center ourselves and slow our separation from nature. Annual immersions permit us to reset and fully regain our connection to nature in order to obtain the numerous benefits that time in nature provides. If we can binge tv shows, why not binge nature experiences?

There are many options depending on one’s comfort level but requires disengaging from day to day life. The key is either not having access to technological devices or not using them, slowing down, quieting our minds, and observing what is around us with all of our senses. While the other stages are a reprieve, a respite from our daily life, this one is truly a reset. It takes a full day and full night to immerse ourselves in this environment. Most likely, there will be an initial feeling of increased stress and discomfort as we reach for phones that are not there, mentally scan a to-do list which is not relevant at the moment, and struggle to slow our minds. But after a full day and night, we will regain comfort with the natural world, begin to fully experience the sights, sounds, and smells that are blocked out in our industrial society.

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Nature immersion and the benefits it provides does not require sleeping on the ground in the middle of nowhere— though this certainly is an option. The key is to spend at least two nights and unplug from both technology and day-to-day life. Having access to air conditioning, comfortable pillows and even continental breakfast that a hotel provides can still fulfill this need. Adding streaming videos during the day, sharing every minute of your exploration on social media, and catching up on “just a few” work emails does not. While the level of comfort and modern conveniences in your sleeping accommodations will not negatively impact your connection with nature, you will ideally spend the majority of your time outdoors, engaged in the natural wonder surrounding you.

Photo Credits: Andrew Lenartz

Additional Reading & Resources
Nature RX: The Best Medicine
Outdoors for all, Sierra Magazine
BALANCING SCREEN TIME WITH GREEN TIME: Attention Retention Theory Helps Explain Why Nature Play Helps Learning
The Nature Cure, Outside Magazine
Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life by Richard Louv
Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscom

Hunter, M.R., Gillespie, B.W., Chen, SY-P., (2019). Urban nature experiences reduce stress in the context of daily life based on salivary biomarkers. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1-16.
Bølling, M., Niclasen, J., Bentsen P., Nielsen, G., (2019). Association of Education Outside the Classroom and pupils’ psychosocial well-being: Results from a school year implementation. Journal of School Health, 89, 210-218.


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1 Comment

  1. I am a teacher who works with students with ADHD and learning disabilities. Do you know of any seminars, workshops, etc. on this topic? Looking specifically for something next summer (2020). Thanks!

    Reply

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