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People are spending more time indoors, and it’s not just because more of us are working at home. Factors such as advancements in technology and evolving lifestyle habits are causing many Americans to spend less time outside — even though early pandemic-related restrictions and lockdowns might have prompted more people to embrace the outdoors.
“We need to incorporate nature into our everyday lives,” says Peter James, associate professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Population Medicine and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. “Many people think about nature as a perk or an amenity. However, nature is a right and a necessity to us as human beings.”
Nature’s health benefits
Environmental epidemiologists like James study how spatial factors, including exposure to nature and socioeconomic factors, can impact health behaviors, mental health, and chronic disease.
Whether it’s riding a bike down a tree-lined street or sitting in a local park, activities in green spaces, such as parks, woods, or gardens, have countless health benefits. “Nature is a core function to society, and it has shown that it can improve overall health and well-being,” says James.
One study found evidence for associations between exposure to nature and improved cognitive function, brain activity, blood pressure, mental health, physical activity, and sleep. In another study, James and his team uncovered that higher levels of green vegetation in residential areas were associated with decreased mortality rates in women.
“Nature essentially acts as a buffer against negative factors, such as air pollution and heat, which can increase risk of chronic disease,” explains James. It also provides room for people to be more physically active, says James, which can lower the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, it can help people recover from stress and boost mental health and cognitive-related functions.
While most of the related research examines the health benefits of green spaces, recent studies are looking at the impact of blue spaces, such as rivers and oceans. According to one report, blue spaces not only promoted greater physical activity and increased restoration but also reduced mortality rates, especially in areas closest to blue spaces. To ensure community members are able to maximize the benefits of these important blue spaces in New England, environmental and public health organizations are working to protect them. On Cape Cod, which has more than 1,000 ponds, the community is taking extra steps to preserve the blue spaces so that people can enjoy and utilize these natural areas.
Connecting with nature, even in unexpected places
Despite COVID-related lockdowns, people are more likely to get outdoors or take a nature-related vacation than they were prior to the pandemic. National park tourism continues to grow, with popular parks like Yellowstone and Acadia seeing record numbers of visitors in 2021. With growing evidence showing the positive correlation between nature and health outcomes, doctors are encouraging people to spend more time outside — even prescribing it. A new program in Canada allows doctors to provide patients with a free annual pass to the country’s national parks to increase access to nature.
However, connecting with nature doesn’t always mean traveling or hiking a mountain.
“Immersing yourself in nature doesn’t mean that you need to go to a national park,” says James. “It could be as simple as taking a stroll down Commonwealth Avenue Mall or a tree-lined street.”
While you can find small areas of nature in the city, it’s important that we continue to add and expand on what we have.
“Cities need to work to ensure they incorporate nature into every nook and cranny so that everyone has the ability to walk out their front door and access nature,” says James. Whether it’s incorporating more trees or opening a new local park, there are ways to integrate nature into urban environments — it’s just a matter of making this accessible to everyone, regardless of location.
Here in New England, various towns have found ways to get the community immersed in nature. Last year, the Arnold Arboretum in Boston offered free audio plays and pop-up performances to the public, allowing visitors to use their bodies and minds to physically interact with their surroundings. For individuals who have limited or no access to the outside world, organizations such as The Nature Connection bring the elements of nature to you. Whether an individual is in a hospital, nursing home, or residential school, The Nature Connection provides them the opportunity to engage with plants, small animals, natural materials, and expressive arts.
Bringing green space into the workplace
Employers are also encouraging their employees to embrace the outdoors during the workday, considering that completing some tasks outdoors can increase happiness, energy levels, and memory.
At the new Point32Health headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts, nature and natural light are design elements that support employee well-being and productivity, says Anne King, vice president of Colleague Enablement and General Services at Point32Health.
Point32Health’s headquarters offers amenities that inspire employees to connect more frequently by getting outside and enjoying nature. “Between walking paths around campus, softball and soccer fields, a track and outdoor areas, there are plenty of opportunities for employees to be active together or take a break and unwind,” says King. In the future, Point32Health also plans to start different sports leagues to connect colleagues and support their health and wellness.
Even if employees don’t have a chance to step out of the office, many employers are taking steps to incorporate more nature indoors. While bringing nature into the workplace might seem like a tall order, there are several efficient and cost-effective ways to create an environment that is inspired by nature. Incorporating more plants into the office or painting the walls a neutral color are just a few ways that companies can bring the elements of nature inside. At Point32Health, employees have the benefit of experiencing nature outside or right from their workstations.
“In terms of lighting, most areas of the workspace offer access to outdoor views and natural light,” explains King. “From different areas of the building, employees can see the fields, a variety of trees, a water pond, and Blue Hills Reservation. We used a neutral color palette that supports a variety of workstyles and allows employees to focus on the landscape and people.”
With both natural and artificial light, King says, Point32Health created a variety of work environments that suit employees’ preferences throughout the day, including meeting spaces, work cafes, a work library, and innovation lab.
Connecting with colleagues — and nature — during the workday
Other employers may also consider looking to their health benefits partner for guidance and support on optimizing physical workplace environments for their employees, both indoor and outdoor. Programs like Living Well (SM), available to both Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan accounts, include unique services like an assessment of the organization’s physical workspaces. This includes access to walking paths and outdoor spaces, as well as a customized plan to incorporate these into a well-being program that can help decrease employees’ stress and help boost physical activity.
While our lives may be busy, connecting with nature is a great way for us to become our best selves both physically and mentally. Nature has the unique ability to relieve stress, increase energy and boost cognitive function. It’s just a matter of getting the right dose of nature every week to ensure you’re experiencing its benefits.
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