Our Need for the Outdoors: The Role of Nature During COVID-19

Co-Authored by: Dr. Jay Maddock, Texas A&M UniversityDr. Bita Kash, Houston Methodist Hospital, and Taylor Keys, Texan by Nature

As the coronavirus continues to spread, large parts of the United States and the World have been placed under stay at home orders.  For most everybody, staying at home and physically, not socially, distancing yourself from other people, is the best way to avoid getting infected.  However, this can take a huge toll on our physical and mental health.  As people move away from their daily routines, physically cut off their connections to other people, and spend more time indoors it increases their feelings of isolation, stress, and fear.  Most exercise facilities are closed as part of containing community spread, which makes it even harder to adhere to recommended physical exercise routines towards both physical and mental health.  Luckily, there is something that we can do every day to improve our immune system, reduce our stress, and improve our mood with little risk of getting infected; spending time in nature.


A Case for Nature

Research on the connection between human health and exposure to nature started to get a foothold in the early 1980s.  The renowned biologist E. O. Wilson hypothesized that humans had an innate connection to nature.  At the same time, Roger Ulrich, a professor of architecture at Texas A&M University was looking at how surgery patients with a view of a natural scene out of their window recovered compared to those with a brick wall outside.  He found that patients with a natural view were discharged faster and used less painkillers than their counterparts.  Since the 1980s and especially in the past five years, the research on the connection between health and natural environments has expanded rapidly.  The evidence is clear in the hospital setting, that exposure to natural light, windows, healing gardens are related to reduced stress, improved healing, and reduced use of pain medicines.  New phases of research are examining how spending time in nature can actually help prevent disease, improve concentration, and reduce stress.

Studies have examined both micro-doses of nature (a 30 minute walk in the woods) and macro-doses of nature (spending a week at a national park).  The effects are consistent and powerful.  Several studies have found a significant increase in natural killer cells (your body’s way of fighting cancer) after a few days relaxing in a forest.  Ming Kuo at the University of Illinois completed a review of research and found that exposure to nature has also been linked to protecting against a variety of diseases including depression, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.  She believes that this is done through nature enhancing our immune systems.  Something we are all interested in these days.  


Texas Leadership in Understanding the Nature and Health Connection 

In Texas, Houston Methodist Hospital, Texas A&M University, and Texan by Nature have come together to create the Center for Health & Nature.  This center is designed to accelerate the research in this field, translate it into clinical and community practice, and inform the public and professionals about the healing power of nature.  The center’s current and future research is looking at the effects of virtual reality gardening and virtual windows to simulate natural environments for patients who are unable to get out, healthcare worker burnout, assessment of the Houston Bayou Greenways project on health, and park prescriptions that allows doctors to prescribe exercising in natural environments.  The intersection of nature and health and its potential to promote healing is one of the most promising new developments in medicine – we often refer to this phenomenon as the “nature pill”. 


Time Outdoors During COVID-19 

How does this affect all of us during the pandemic?  With most cities implementing stay-at-home orders, it is still ok to be outside. With all of the gyms closed, it is still important and possible to get daily exercise. Enjoy a walk or run through your own neighborhood, have a picnic outside, or even set up a tent in your backyard to have an evening under the stars – the possibilities are endless. Organizations such as the Children & Nature Network and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension have written articles that offer activities and resources to help keep children healthy and engaged during this time. More articles are available in this database of resources, in addition to education and activities for children and adults, virtual nature trips, and more from conservation groups across Texas.

With Spring comes so many signs of life, healing, and renewal in the outdoors. As George Santayana once said, “The earth has music for those who listen”. Next time you’re outside see and listen to nature, from the birds singing their own special tunes to bright green buds that will turn to leaves adorning branches, in difficult times like these life is everywhere.

If you can’t go outside because of your health or other reasons, many zoos and conservation organizations are streaming videos to let you enjoy wildlife and the outdoors from the comfort of your home. Be sure to follow your favorite conservation organizations on their social media channels and subscribe to their newsletters for the latest dose of nature. Take virtual tours to explore the hidden worlds of the National Parks, enjoy an audio tour of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, birdwatch with Cornell Lab, or explore hundreds of live nature and wildlife cam feeds at Explore.org. Virtual reality trips into nature can be effective in improving your overall health and wellbeing. 

A recent study showed that just 2 hours a week in nature (about 20 minutes a day) had a positive effect on people’s mood and self-reported health.  With all of the issues and restrictions of life caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we need something that reduces our stress, lowers our blood pressure, stimulates our immune system, and improves our mood more than ever before.  It’s time to get outside.

When you’re outside, follow the CDC’s recommended guidelines on protecting yourself, such as keeping at least a six foot distance from other people, avoiding high-touch areas such as playgrounds, not touching your face, and washing your hands for at least 20 seconds as soon as you get back home.