The Benefits Of Being In Nature

by Dr. Chelsea Cole BSc ND

Picnics are the perfect way to experience the benefits of nature, good food, and good company.

A few months ago, Sarah and I hosted a Fare & Flourish picnic with family and friends at Willows Beach. We wanted to showcase summertime fruits without any embellishment, and simple picnic recipes full of flavour and vegetables. Cutting boards were piled high with whole blueberries, cherries from Sarah’s parent’s garden, slices of ripe peaches, marinated olives, manchego cheese, and crackers. Homemade hummus was served with sliced, fresh vegetables. Chickpea lettuce wraps, spiced with harissa and topped with ribbons of cucumber and carrot, were the main course. Gluten free blueberry cake was dessert. It was a lovely meal, with lovely people. While it would have been a delicious and enjoyable evening indoors, it felt special to be sitting near the ocean under the sun.

Many people would agree that spending time in nature feels good. Personally, spending time outside is part of my self-care, and looking out over the ocean often brings me a sense of calm. While I do not need a scientific paper to tell me that nature is therapeutic, I found the literature on this topic to be fascinating. One review paper found that time spent in natural environments improved recovery from stress and mental fatigue, and protected people from negative effects of stress more so than urban environments. While I really do enjoy wandering around the city, and eating at bustling restaurants, there is something peaceful about spending an evening picnicking on the beach. It felt like a pause from the usual pace of life, and made me feel more connected to the outdoors. In fact, another study explored the relationship between nature connectedness and happiness. Nature connectedness is a subjective measure that describes one’s relationship with the natural environment. People who reported greater nature connectedness tended to experience greater happiness, vitality, and life satisfaction compared to those who reported less nature connectedness. Similarly, another study found that those with a greater connection to nature experienced lower levels of anxiety. So, this means that spending more time outside, exploring nature and cultivating a connection to nature can help improve happiness and decrease anxiety. Based on this paper, it doesn’t really matter what you are doing, it just matters that you feel a connection to nature. For me, hiking, spending time on the beach, and eating outside increase my sense of nature connectedness, especially when some of the food is grown locally and is being shared with friends. While it is fascinating that people report feeling less stress and anxiety with more nature exposure, I found it even more incredible that some research papers revealed that people with higher nature exposure tended to have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and higher self-reports of health. This means that nature helps in both subjective and objective ways.

While spending time in nature is a helpful way to reduce stress and increase happiness, living in today’s world means that many people, myself included, feel that there is never enough time. Interestingly, one review paper explored the beneficial effects of feeling awe and found that people who felt awe also felt that they had more time available to them, were more patient, and experienced greater life satisfaction.Living on Vancouver Island means that we are exposed to awe-inspiring natural vistas all of the time. From the beautiful sunsets that can be viewed from the long stretches of beach, to the impossibly tall trees, awe can be an attainable feeling. The researchers discussed how feeling awe brings people into the present moment, thereby altering perception of time. Another study found that awe was the strongest predictor of lower levels of inflammatory compounds, meaning that awe can improve subjective and objective markers of stress. So, finding nature scenes that bring a sense of awe will blend all the benefits of nature connectedness and exposure, with those of feeling awe. 

When Fare & Flourish was first created, Sarah and I thought it was important to share our intentions with regard to food. We wanted to be transparent in our aim of the website, but also about what guides our food decision-making. We were careful not to label these as “rules” because food is complicated and food choices are individual. As we sat on the beach eating olives and peaches, we were reminded of some of our intentions, including: feeding yourself is a form of self-care; food is more than just fuel; food is a way to connect with others. In addition to the benefits of being in nature, picnics are a way to care for yourself, enjoy food, and have a nice moment with others. We hope that you take advantage of sunny days to eat something you love while in nature.

  1. Berto R. (2014). The role of nature in coping with psycho‐physiological stress: a literature review on restorativeness. Behav Sci 4(4): 394-409.
  2. Capaldi C. (2014) The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis. Front Psychol 5:976
  3. Martyn P. (2016) The relationship between nature relatedness and anxiety. J. Health Psychol. 21(7): 1436-1445.
  4. Twohig-Bennet, C. (2018) The health benefits of the great outdoors: a systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes.Environmental Research 166: 628-637.
  5. Rudd M. (2012) Awe expand’s people’s perception of time, alters decision-making, and enhances wellbeing. Psychol Sci 23(10): 1130-6.
  6. Stellar J. E. (2015) Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion. 15(2): 129-33.

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